Alexandra DuPont Fails To Get Into Christmas’ THE SPIRIT!!
Published at: Dec. 24, 2008, 7:56 p.m. CST by hercules
I am – Hercules!!
Before we present the lovely and talented Alexandra DuPont’s typically thorough and articulate appraisal of Frank Miller’s “The Spirit” (opening nationwide Christmas Day) I am compelled to give a shout-out to Scott Hoffman over at moviepicturefilm.com, who provided all the quotes for the “Spirit” TV spots we’ve been seeing. They look a lot like this:
ONE OF THE BEST
FILMS OF THE YEAR
FULL OF JAW-
IT WILL BLOW
Scott Hoffman, moviepicturefilm.com
If you missed Scott’s name in those ads? It might be because, while his glowing pull-quotes are voiced by a pro announcer as they linger on screen in large block lettering, you can really only make out the essentially subliminal appearance of Scott’s name and the name of his website by freeze-framing.
(It’s also much easier to read Scott’s name if you own an HD set, because Scott’s name and venue appear only in very, very tiny type. Also, I don’t know if Lionsgate is vulnerable to a class-action lawsuit for false advertising – the way Sony was for using pretend-critic quotes a few years ago - but the ad’s announcer says “Critics say” instead of “A critic says,” when in fact Scott’s review seems to be the only review quoted in the ads.)
Scott's take on "The Spirit" is one of only five movie reviews posted to moviepicturefilm.com this year. You can read all five of them here.
If the studio publicists are smart, Scott will get invited to a lot more screenings from here on out!
Here’s gorgeous genius heiress Lexy, who already gets invited to everything even though she’s a tad less effusive about "The Spirit" than was moviepicturesfilm.com:
The Spirit: FAQ
(By Alexandra DuPont)
Q. What's the upshot?
Boy, thoseotherwritersweren'tkidding: "The Spirit" might be the worst movie I've seen since -- what?-- "Turistas"? And if I start thinking too hard about the talent involved (or the former talent involved, or the dead talent involved) versus what made it to the cineplex, "The Spirit" might even elbow its way up to be the worst movie I've seen since "The Phantom Menace."
It's one of those painfully, jaw-droppingly, call-your-lawyer bad movie experiences -- the sort of flick where pretty much every scene is a complete misfire, and not in that so-bad-it's-funny way. The timing's all off. The actors look confused and embarrassed. And if you care at all about the source material, the movie feels like punishment, or the final act of revenge in some long-simmering Miller/Eisner feud you never knew existed.
As AICN readers know, writer/director Frank Miller is adapting comics master Will Eisner's classic newspaper-strip character for the big screen. (Here's a nice writeup that brings you up to speed on the character's history and importance; here's the Wikipedia entry.) Miller got the gig on the strength of co-directing "Sin City" with Robert Rodriguez, and also on the strength of his back catalog as a comics writer/artist.
But without Rodriguez, Miller's lost -- and as a storyteller, he's like ten or 15 years past his prime.
And so, in his first solo outing as a director, Frank Miller manages the neat trick of denting the legacies of two comics legends -- Frank Miller and Will Eisner -- in one excruciating 90-minute go. And because Miller slathered his creepy/campy fetishes all over someone else's character in a movie instead of in a comic book, he finally made all of his 21st-century artistic crutches and coastings a matter of national discussion -- not just fodder for a message-board thread where disgruntled fanboys refer to "All-Star Batman and Robin" as "ASSBAR."
God, I'll bet Lionsgate feels ripped off right now. Keep this man away from "Buck Rogers."
Q. What's the story?
Eisner's Spirit was a former cop named Denny Colt, thought killed, who woke up in a cemetery and decided to smash crime in a domino mask, fedora and off-the-rack blue suit. There's a certain sneaky genius in the plainness of The Spirit's costume; it places the character in some weird nether-zone between superheroics and noir, which gave Eisner a sort of artistic blank check to do what he wanted. The character's exploits appeared in seven-page comic-book inserts in Sunday papers starting in 1940, and the generous format gave Will Eisner all kinds of latitude to play with comics language, to stretch the art form, to experiment. I'm guessing for a lot of casual comics fans, especially younger ones, "The Spirit" is one of those titles where they've been told it's Important and Seminal and Influential more than they've actually picked the damned books up and read them. If the movie changes that even a little, well, good.
(Though I was recently told by an anguished-looking comics-shop clerk that "civilians" are coming into his store asking for copies of "Frank Miller's Spirit" -- which is a bit like asking for copies of "Sidney J. Furie's Superman," as far as I'm concerned.)
With the movie, Frank Miller has basically done the exact opposite of what Eisner was doing with the comic. In his own weird way, Miller is playing it extremely safe -- cycling through his usual visual obsessions and ripping himself off and making the whole thing look deeply stylized in the exact same way "Sin City" looked deeply stylized. Miller used to talk about working on a "Sin City: 1940" comic that never came to fruition, and I wouldn't be shocked to learn he was planning to make it look a lot like this.
Miller has also taken the Denny Colt character and given him fast-healing superpowers, a black suit and a "hard-boiled" smart mouth -- turning Eisner's everyman into a cross between a declawed Wolverine and ASSBAR's Batman, basically. (As a friend put it after the screening, "I'm surprised Miller didn't have him say, 'I'm The Goddamned Spirit.'")
The movie opens with Miller's idea of The Angel of Death: a hot half-naked chick named Lorelai with a bunch of shit glued to her face. "I am Death, Denny Colt, you are the only one who has ever escaped my cold embrace," she says amid glittery light effects borrowed from "Xanadu." Then we cut to the outskirts of Central City, USA, where The Goddamned Spirit (Gabriel Macht) is getting in a knock-down drag-out fight in a cesspool with The Goddamned Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) -- a mad scientist with Cruella de Ville's fashion sense, a naughty-nurse dominatrix for an assistant (Scarlett Johansson) and a weird, unfunny habit of finding the slightest excuse to go on and on about how he hates eggs. During this opening fight, the pacing is immediately weird, and The Octopus hits The Spirit with giant wrenches and toilets and says "Come on! Toilets are ALWAYS funny!" and The Spirit hits The Octopus with kitchen sinks and says, "Well, I'll be learnin' you!" and the audience says, "Well, I guess this supposed to be campy or something."
It only gets worse from there.
Denny's childhood first love, Sand Serif (Eva Mendes), also turns up during this scene. In a wetsuit. With a gun. She and The Octopus are each after a couple of boxes of ancient mythical treasure inexplicably buried in the cesspool, I think: One box contains The Golden Fleece, which Sand wants because it's glittery, and one box contains the Blood of Heracles, which The Octopus wants because it will make him immortal.
Each villain makes off with the wrong box. The Spirit sort of investigates the case between bouts of talking grittily to himself. And a bunch of weapon-wielding women in various skimpy form-fitting outfits lust after The Spirit and/or beat the shit out of him. Sound familiar, "Sin City" fans? It's all really just an excuse for Miller to once again make moving versions of all the stuff he's been drawing obsessively for a while now -- women's asses, sneakers and boots, gloves, Nazi symbols, dinosaurs, bald guys, ancient Greek shit and fight scenes full of improbable straight-legged kicks, all of it colored black and red and white.
Q. What's good?
1. Gabriel Macht (or as I like to call him, "2008's Bruce Boxleitner") tries really really hard to find a coherent character in Miller's script, and he's going to be unfairly shunned in the weeks to come. He's especially good at recreating The Spirit's wide-eyed oh-shit-I'm-in-over-my-head facial expression that Eisner drew so well.
2. Sarah Paulson does just fine as The Spirit's long-suffering doctor girlfriend.
3. Geek-fave cinematographer Bill Pope ("The Matrix," "Team America") and a battalion of post-production PC jockeys do a skillful job carbon-copying the looks of "Sin City" and "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." (Is there an official name for this particular brand of mostly animated "live-action" movie yet -- like "Expressionism Plagiarism Priapism" or something?)
4. There's one scene (one!) that I thought kind of worked as intended: The Spirit's walking down the street in the middle of the day, punching out purse-snatchers, and he gives a TV interview in which he tells kids to brush their teeth. There's a mild opening-scene-of-"The Incredibles" vibe to the way it's done. However, even writing that just reminds me that Brad Bird and John Lasseter almost made a "Spirit" feature in the '80s.
5. There's a truck with the words "Ditko's Delivery Service" emblazoned on the side. Denny Colt mentions "Dropsie Avenue" at one point. That's kind of neat.
Q. What's just stunningly fucking awful?
Um, to paraphrase Fatboy: everything else?
1. The dialogue is just an endless crap memory of hard-boiled dialogue -- a whole movie of people loudly and rapidly saying stuff like, "You knew the score!" without any deeper sense of the history of the kinds of movies that dialogue is meant to reference.
2. Moratorium: No movie is ever allowed to "cleverly" reference the glowing box from "Kiss Me Deadly" again. Ever.
3. Samuel L. Jackson, like many of the actors, seems to be directing himself in many scenes and visibly loses faith in his director over the course of the production. It's terrible to watch -- especially if you know what a hard-core comics fan Jackson is. Imagine one of your artistic heroes casting you in a movie and then making a fool of you.
4. Who exactly is Spirit telling his backstory to as he walks home after the opening fight -- his cat? No one in particular? It's hard to tell.
5. I'd now like to describe a few scenes in detail. (Like the scenes you may have seen promo-ed online, these are actually worse in context.)
a. Miller is constantly creating images he clearly thinks are funny -- but he doesn't have the first clue as to how comedy is paced or staged when it actually has to move and cut together. One of the least hilarious recurring jokes in the movie involves a series of cloned henchmen (all played by Louis Lombardi) that the Octopus keeps killing in fits of pique. These guys are all grievously stupid, finish each others' sentences, and wear black t-shirts emblazoned with words like ETHOS, LOGOS, PATHOS, DIALOS and SOS; imagine "Don" and "Rob" from "The Dark Knight Returns" as written by a sozzled uncle who laughs at his own jokes, and you're starting to get the idea.
Anyway. In one scene, The Octopus orders one of these henchmen to commit seppuku -- which the guy starts doing, with a dumb blank grin on his face, kneeling in the foreground, the blade stuck in his stomach but no blood visible, lest the PG-13 rating be endangered. ("This kinda tickles," I think he says, the actor looking kind of embarrassed as he says it.) Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson are pacing back and forth behind him like they've been directed to move from point to point in a bad college art film, ignoring Lombardi and droning on and on about their plans (and eggs, I'm sure). It plays like Miller shot his storyboards and nothing else, giving the editors no leeway to find a comic rhythm.
b. Sand Serif lectures a guy about "making an perfect ass of yourself." As she says this, she is making a photocopy of her ass. No, really. The Spirit finds it later and immediately recognizes Sand Serif from it. The Frank Miller who writes ASSBAR wrote this. And he thinks it's hilarious.
c. At one point, The Spirit wakes up tied to a dental chair and says, "What smells dental?" He looks up, sees a swastika, and says, "Dental and Nazi. Great."
What follows is one of the goofiest, unfunniest, most ineptly staged scenes I have ever seen in a comic-book movie, and that includes the ones produced by Roger Corman.
Samuel L. Jackson suddenly stomps out in a full-on Nazi SS uniform and starts monologuing about experimental serums (and eggs) -- because apparently we need to know the secret origins of this character we barely care about. Jackson is flanked by Scarlett Johansson, dressed as a naughty nurse, and a bellydancer named Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega) who apparently loves to sashay around and kill men with a pair of Klingon-y swords.
At one point -- probably when Jackson was going on about runny eggs or Huevos Rancheros again, and shortly before Jackson declares someone "dead as 'Star Trek'" (???) -- Macht says, "Pardon me, but is there a point to all this? I'm getting old just listening to you." The urge to stand up and applaud was overwhelming. By the time Plaster Paris (Paz Vega) was dancing off into the snow in a belly-dancing outfit, carrying a couple of swords, I was thinking to myself, "This is the visualized inner life of a not-well man."
d. There's this cute rookie cop (Stana Tatic) who goes on and on about Sand Serif's "Elektra complex." It's the sort of weirdly self-congratulatory joke -- a nod to Miller's past "Daredevil" glory that only comics insiders will get -- that turns up all over this movie.
In another scene, someone sees The Spirit hanging from a skyscraper and says, "You'll believe a man CAN'T fly!" Seriously? A pun based on the advertising tagline from a 1978 superhero movie? Who is that gag for, exactly? It's like you're watching a very expensive series of inside jokes, or reading a really bad webcomic with a vast continuity and its own tiny and deeply insular LiveJournal community.
This leads me to my larger rant: Watching the movie, I really started to wonder if Miller suffers from that artist's malady where he's been called a "genius" and a "maverick" so many times, he's settled into a nice comfy couch inside his own head and is now perfectly happy cycling through a tiny set of visual obsessions that only he finds funny or profound.
This isn't the Frank Miller who wrote and/or drew dense, scary, funny, moody, multilayered sci-fi satires -- classics like "Ronin" or "Give Me Liberty" or "The Dark Knight Returns" or his staggering takes on Elektra and Daredevil. That Frank Miller was like the James Cameron of comics, young and hungry and drunk on telling bad-ass popular stories full of strong women.
Maybe Hollywood thought it was hiring that Frank Miller to adapt "The Spirit." What Hollywood is about to learn -- in a very public and embarrassing way -- is that the "Frank Miller" comics fans once spoke of in hushed tones stopped making good stories about 10 years ago, if you count "300" as his last ambitious book. It's worth pointing out here that Rodriguez was skillfully remixing Miller's 10- and 15-year-old material for "Sin City" -- material that gets weaker and weaker as that series (and that movie) goes on. (Seriously: Try reading the last "Sin City" book, "Hell and Back," and getting any nutrition from that silly wet dream of a drug hallucination of a rescue fantasy.)
Miller can still draw -- even if he now gives every character hands and feet so Looney Tunes large, I'm surprised the gloves don't have three fingers -- but as a writer, he's become reduced, primitive, a "hard-boiled" parody of himself. He keeps saying in interviews, "I just do the stuff I do!," but he's wrong -- he's doing less and less. The blown production schedule suggests he was going through some rough creative times while making "The Dark Knight Strikes Again," so I should probably cut the man some slack on that book. But couldn’t he have just taken a break instead of taking a fascinating pop-art superhero premise and executing it without a single establishing or crowd shot -- relying instead on hammy narration, jumbled close-ups and embarrassing Photoshop filters to get the job done? Reading "Dark Knight Strikes," your jaw drops as Miller just plain skips over the parts of the story he doesn't feel like telling. And you wonder if one of the most influential comic writer/artists of the late 20th century -- the man who helped make comics safe for a more grown-up audience -- has lost his nerve, his mind, or just his desire to think things through and bust his ass.
Miller inspired a generation of writers and artists to take comics seriously with "Ronin" (1983), "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" (1986), "Elektra: Assassin" (1986), "Batman: Year One" (1987), "Give Me Liberty" (1990) and "Sin City: The Hard Goodbye" (1991). Now he just barely manages to write "All-Star Batman & Robin," one of the most stupid, vile and reviled Caped Crusader comics ever committed to print.
My point being: Hollywood just gave the keys to a major motion picture to today's Frank Miller, an artist who needs to get hungry again, a guy who now coasts on a greatest-hits list of pumped-up sight gags. And he fucked up "The Spirit" big-time, and took the late Will Eisner's legacy with him.
Q. What did your fellow screening attendees have to say afterward?
"A.R.," photographer: "What the fuck was that? No, seriously -- what the fuck was that?""F.Q.," actuary: "Frank Miller must hate Jesus. Why else would Frank give Him this turd on His birthday?"
"P.H.," telemarketer, responding to F.Q.: "Maybe Miller's German and thinks you're supposed to lay cable on your friends. That would sure explain why he gave Scarlett Johansson a second head made out of Hitler."
[I actually had to e-mail P.H. later and find out what he meant. "'Lay cable' is a crudity that describes the action of defecating," he explained, helpfully. "ScarJo's Hitler head comes from that sequence in the Nazi room where Samuel L. Jackson melts a cat: Miller cuts back to Scarlett like four times, and there's a giant picture behind her that makes it look like Hitler's head is growing from her shoulder."]
"Y.Y.," forensic anthropologist: "Some may say Will Eisner is rolling over in his grave. He isn't -- Frank Miller never gave him the chance. Frank Miller dug him up, threw him in the mud, and beat him over the head with a putrid toilet. And then had the gall to call it an homage."
"R.P.," console-gaming engineer: "If Rodriguez is involved, I'd go see a 'Sin City 2,' but pure, unadulterated Miller at this point just depresses the fuck out of me -- not to mention makes me actually resent the fact that, back in high school, 'Dark Knight' and 'Sin City' were some of the first comics to really get me jazzed about the medium. But Jesus Christ -- I wanted to hang myself after listening to him ramble on about some bullshit or other at Comic-Con; the guy's just taken self-aggrandizing creative bankruptcy to whole new levels, and I really don't want to have to sit through two hours that just remind me of that fact. Whoa. Not sure where that came from. End rant."
Warmest, Alexandra DuPont.