A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 451 – The Spirit (2008)

The Spirit (2008) – May 25th, 2011

Tonight Andy said he needed something that wouldn’t make him think. And we do have a multitude of non-thinky movies left on our list. Movies that won’t tax the brain when trying to understand the plot or the purpose or anything like that. No serious themes that we’d want to spend pages pondering. No deep backstory for our personal connection to the movie. Nothing like that. Just something ridiculous and silly. So I looked through the list and dismissed a few things right off the bat. Dismissed a few others after looking them up. And then saw this and suggested it. I hadn’t seen it. Andy had. I knew it had been panned. And yet we owned it. So it seemed pretty much tailor made for tonight.

And I was right! Except I did end up having to think a bit when it came to trying to explain to myself how the movie could be as bad as it is. Really, I find it baffling. I can see so many things that were attempted and could have been done well and just weren’t. I’ve seen a couple of reviews describe this movie as “fun” and I have to wonder what their basis for comparison is. A root canal? The 1040 long form? Watching paint dry? Punch Drunk Love? I mean, this movie kept attempting humor but I don’t think it ever reached more than a moment or two of funny, let alone movie-long stretches of fun. What makes it so frustrating is the attempts that were made. Attempts in so many directions I honestly don’t know if the movie knew where it was going.

That right there is, I think, a large chunk of the problem. This is a comic book movie based on a serial I’m not familiar with. So I did a little reading and as far as I can tell it was a noirish detective serial that had a good dose of humor mixed into its regular plots and storylines. So I would expect there to be some humorous lines. But there aren’t just humorous lines dropped into an otherwise serious story. It’s this bizarre mix of parody and homage that never quite works, largely because the parody aspect needs firmer ground than it’s got. What, exactly, is it parodying? Sin City? I wouldn’t say Frank Miller can’t parody his own stuff, but it’s not like the movie is a genre unto itself. If it’s parodying noir in general it misses the mark completely because the bits that read as parody aren’t the femme fatale or the tough detective or the faithful lover or the gritty and dark city streets. The bits that read as parody are the comic book parts, with the clone henchmen and the out-of-nowhere Nazi villains and the hero himself.

On top of the problem with the uncertain tone is a distinct lack of focus on the part of the actors. Now, this is a more than decent cast. Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendez and Scarlett Johansson alone should have been able to breathe some life and vitality into this movie. But they don’t. Okay, Jackson does every so often, but he’s saddled with the most ridiculous part I think he’s ever played. And this is the man known for Snakes on a Plane. He’s playing the villain here, and he gets some great scenery chewing moments. Moments where I can see what Miller was going for. His obsession over a bizarre little failed clone that’s just a tiny head on a foot and his dislike of free range chickens? It’s so out of place and laughable but then he doesn’t get to really go anywhere with any of it. Each strange quirk gets carried for a line or two and then it’s played out. The Octopus (his character) has eight of everything? Great! Except we only hear that in the climactic fight scene. If you’re going to go whole hog and be that ridiculous then damn well do it! Don’t half-ass it and leave us hanging there, wondering if he was supposed to have eight henchmen and eight cats and eight labs or whatever. And to top it all off, remember I mentioned that the villain is an out-of-nowhere Nazi? Yeah. Complete with lightning bolt tattoo on the back of his head. What the everloving fuck? That’s not parody. That’s not canon as far as I can tell. It’s just tossed in there for no discernible reason aside from making him more of a villain? I don’t even. So all of Jackson’s hamming it up comes to naught because he’s got what is probably one of the worst roles I’ve ever witnessed on film and he can chew chew chew and it’s never going to make the role palatable.

Not that the rest of the characters are a whole lot better, but at least only one of them is an unnecessary Nazi (seriously, the Spirit himself has a cell phone so we’re not set in the 1940s). Sadly, she’s also the most lacklustre character of the bunch, and that’s saying something. My theory is that Scarlett Johansson signed on, then read the script and hoped she was missing something and by the time she realized she wasn’t it was too late to back out. It’s the only way I can explain her performance. I usually quite like her, but from her first lines it was pretty clear to me she was done with this movie. I’ve seen more interested reads done in high school English classes. She gets a couple of lines near the end that hint at the parody her character might have been trying to portray, but if a movie has to have a character flat out say that she’s a parody? The parody has failed.

The rest of the movie is just plain messy. It’s got this plot with the Spirit’s backstory and the Octopus being his nemesis and neither of them can die. But it’s also got some backstory from when the Spirit was a kid and not the Spirit yet and he had this girlfriend, Sand Saref, who ended up turning to crime. And now she’s stolen a crate with a vase full of blood in it instead of a crate full of some sort of treasure we never really find out too much about. The Octopus wants the vase full of blood and while one would think they’d arrange a trade right quick one would be wrong. Instead they faff about for an hour or so. The Octopus makes his hideous foot clone and Sand kills some people for kicks and the Spirit tries to track them down and his faithful doctor girlfriend waits for him to get carted into the hospital. And her father’s the police commissioner and he works with the Spirit, who used to be a cop before he died, but he doesn’t like his lone wolf techniques. And there’s a rookie who wishes she was Paget Brewster and a siren who’s actually death, I think, who tries to seduce the Spirit into dying whenever he gets close to death.

It’s not that it’s hard to follow! This is not a complicated movie. It’s just messily put together. Oh, visually it’s quite pretty, with the not quite black and white visuals with little hints and pops of color. Unfortunately it’s not handled as well as the other two black/white/bit-of-color movies I can think of, namely Sin City and Pleasantville. The former was stark, keeping the color to splashes and highlights. Red sneakers here, blue eyes there, yellow bastard in the corner. The latter used some more subtle and realistic shades, washing them in over skin and the pages of books and the leaves of trees. This movie hits somewhere in the middle. The Spirit’s tie is bright red, but the Octopus’ gloves have dark burgundy accents that barely read. It diminishes the whole effect and while the movie is pretty, it could have been so much more visually arresting.

I honestly don’t know what else I can say about this movie. I don’t know what else there is to say. It’s a movie that doesn’t quite know what it is. It’s got a great cast that’s wasted on clumsy lines and a messy plot. It’s got a director who has gone on record as having been so distracted by an actress in a skimpy outfit that he yelled cut instead of action (and if I was an actress in a movie where the director did that I’d be pretty pissed – just saying). It’s got flat humor and pointless Nazi villains and it is about as much fun as doing a sink full of dishes.

May 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Spirit

May 25, 2011

The Spirit

I had an awful day at work today, so I asked Amanda to pick out an escapist movie that wouldn’t require much thought. “I wouldn’t mind if it was cheesy and awful,” I said. Somehow Amanda knew, even though she had never seen this movie before, that this was just the kind of awful that I needed.

I bought this because I fell for the marketing. Samuel L. Jackson? Scarlett Johansson? Eva Mendes? In a film directed by Frank Miller that uses the visual style of Sin City? How could it fail? The answer is, of course, spectacularly.

What I should have remembered was that notwithstanding the success of the 300 and Sin City Frank Miller has a fairly uneven record with regards to movies. This film here is more of one from the author of Robocop 2 than from the co-director of Sin City. It’s pretty clear to me that what happened was that after working on the set with Robert Rodruiges Miller said to himself, “hey, I can do that!” and set out to make another movie using the same techniques, camera tricks, and look, but with a slightly different feel.

The biggest problem this movie has is that it is too similar to Sin City I think. You could mistake it for a knock off or a sequel were it not so hammy and silly throughout. It has the same monotone voice-overs and hard boiled noir feel. It has the same bold use of light and shadow. It has the same use of strategic color to evoke the feel of a comic book brought to life. The look and feel of Sin City is so distinctive that this movie ends up feeling derivative and because this film is so farcical in tone it feels lessened by the natural comparison.

I should state that I have never read the original Spirit comic books by Will Eisner. I have no idea if this adaptation is faithful or how much of what we see is Miller’s interpretation of Eisner’s work. I can only really speak to what works in the movie and what doesn’t. And there’s so much that simply doesn’t work.

The plot revolves around a super hero calling himself the Spirit who is gifted with amazing recuperative powers. He runs across the rooftops of Center City USA in a style familiar to anybody who has ready Miller’s Daredevil books, leaping over water towers and dashing along power lines. His nemesis is the similarly gifted Octopus, a crime lord who takes great pleasure in working out his frustrations by going toe to toe with the Spirit because neither of them, apparently, can die.

That’s pretty much the movie right there. There’s a whole lot of stuff about a girl from the Spirit’s past named Sand Serif who is a glamorous thief in pursuit of a mysterious treasure from antiquity. There’s the mystery of how the Spirit and the Octopus got their recuperative powers and who the Spirit was before he first died. There’s a level headed doctor who is romantically hung up on the Spirit and has some kind of past with him. (This character is actually one of the more puzzling things in the movie for me. She’s an intelligent woman who used to be romantically involved with the Spirit in his earlier life before he first died but doesn’t seem to recognise him any more. I was never able to figure out if this was a deliberate joke or if she was meant to be in tragic denial or what.) There’s the Octopus’ large collection of rather dim cloned henchmen who are meant to act as comic relief but mostly just make me wince. But when you boil the whole movie down there’s mostly just the Spirit and the Octopus beating each other up.

Part of what makes this movie so difficult to enjoy is that it tries so very hard to be farcical and funny. The whole tone of the film is slightly off-kilter and strange. The character names, like Sand Serif and the evil seductress Plaster of Paris are simply odd. The acting is outrageous and extreme (but not always.) There are moments of surreal oddity such as when the Octopus is dressed as a samurai with big shaggy side burns for no reason, or when he menaces the Spirit dressed as a Nazi SS officer with monocle. The whole film is filled with strange “What were they thinking” moments that leave me feeling befuddled and confused.

I have to wonder what kind of movie the actors in this film thought they were making. I mean, they were on a stage with no sets and minimal props, acting in front of a green screen. Samuel L. Jackson as the Octopus delivers one of the most outrageous over-the-top performances of his career. Scarlett Johansson as his sidekick Silken Floss looks as though she really doesn’t want to be there and is trying to get out of her contract. The actor portraying the commissioner of police, Dan Lauria plays his role almost completely straight as though he’s in a perfectly normal noir crime movie, but in the same scenes there’s Stana Katic as the eager rookie Morgenstern acting like a complete ham with big exaggerated gestures and body language. I have to assume that most of it is a result of Frank Miller’s directorial style, and I’m sure he was more intent on shot composition and achieving a particular look than on managing his actors’ performances.

This movie is a mess. It’s not as funny as it seems to think that it is, has an unlikable womanising lead character, is filled with odd performances, and feels very much as though it’s trying to be something more than it actually is. It’s not quite as bad as I remembered it being from the first time I watched it (I think my assessment that first time was tinged by my profound disappointment that it wasn’t at all what I had been expecting.) It is, however, pretty darned bad. I was in the mood for a bad movie today though, and this one nicely fits the bill. I wonder if there’s a riff-track.

May 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment