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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 to 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 includes a must-see bonus feature: “Miller on Miller,” in which Miller talks of him 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 the unknown Gabriel Macht in the eponymous role with 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 (hi, Sam!). 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 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.
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2 Stars Movies

John Erick Dowdle’s Zombie Fauxmentary Quarantine

Quarantine, remade by director John Erick Dowdle (co-written with brother Drew) from the Spanish movie REC (2007), follows in the now-firmly established horror fauxmentary tradition. Previous entries Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead, and Cloverfield are all ostensibly comprised of found footage recovered from cameras found at the scenes of horrific disasters. Quarantine’s only wrinkle is that, unlike its predecessors, this pretense is not explained as such on screen. Quarantine’s conceit is that we’re watching raw footage, edited in-camera, abandoned by the late characters themselves. There are no implied, unseen survivors that picked up the pieces.

Cloverfield never provided a convincing psychological motivation to explain why its cinematographer would keep his camcorder running throughout his desperate flight from toxic alien creatures swarming across Manhattan. A much more intelligent examination of an obsession to capture everything on video came from the less expected source of none other than the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. His underrated Diary of the Dead features a group of young film students with pretensions to becoming great documentarian filmmakers, and what better subject to document than their own first-hand experiences during a zombie outbreak? Although Cloverfield had significantly greater budgetary resources at its disposal to create eerily realistic images of Manhattan crumbling beneath the feet of a Godzilla-like monster, Quarantine follows in the more modest footsteps of Diary of the Dead in striving for greater psychological realism.

In story terms, the justifications for Quarantine’s characters to keep filming continually evolve as their circumstances worsen. Like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Quarantine features members of the press as main characters. The first full 12 minutes are devoted to reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) and cameraman Scott Percival (Steve Harris) shooting a television news segment on a local fire department. By the time an emergency finally arrives and the duo hitches a ride along to the scene, we’ve become fully endeared to the bubbly, spunky reporter and the charmingly filthy firefighters. As the routine investigation turns into a confrontation with a feral-seeming elderly woman, Angela senses the opportunity to score some sensational footage. It’s clear she fancies herself a more serious reporter.

Jennifer Carpenter in Quarantine
In true horror movie fashion, Angela (Jennifer Carpenter) sheds layers of clothing throughout her ordeal

Later, as the elderly woman is revealed to be patient zero for a new highly contagious disease, the Los Angeles Center for Communicable Disease quickly quarantines the building, cutting off all their communications and falsely reporting to the public that it has been evacuated. The trapped tenants are a random assortment of Los Angelans: an opera tutor and his hot young live-in protege, a veterinarian, a cleaning woman, a mom and her baby (whom we meet again near the end of the film, in horrifying transformed fashion), toy dogs, an immigrant couple, and… what’s missing? That’s right! If this is L.A., where are all the unemployed actors?

Building manager Yuri (Rade Serbedzija) keeps conveniently remembering exits (including a back door and a basement entry to a sewer), but all are blocked. By this point, Angela has morphed into a righteous crusader wanting more footage as proof of the city’s outrage against justice and human rights. But when the virus spreads to most of the people trapped in the building, the power goes off, and panic truly sets in, Angela’s motivations switch to pure survival. The camera now only proves useful as a source of light, and anything captured on video happens by chance as they frantically navigate through the corridors. Then, in true horror movie fashion, things get even worse. In a scene rivaling the nail-biting basement sequence in Silence of the Lambs, Angela and Scott find themselves barricaded in a pitch-black attic with their camera’s lamp broken. The remainder of the movie is seen through the greenish haze of their night-vision filter.

While Quarantine may seem to tip its hat to horror tradition as protagonist Angela sheds layers of clothing over the course of her ordeal, the movie is actually quite subversive in showing her lose her spirit. Atypically for a horror movie protagonist, she is no plucky survivor that defeats the menace. She pretty much just breaks down.

Scott Percival in Quarantine
ground floor, coming up

Quarantine may be yet another in a long line of zombie flicks, but I would argue its true genre identity is as an urban nightmare. Cloverfield relived 9/11 in the form of another Godzilla and its highly toxic babies, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic envisioned swarms of giant cockroaches breeding in abandoned subway stations. Quarantine touches on another deep anxiety of urban dwellers: a viral contagion born of city filth. The entire outbreak plays out in the confines of an aging tenement building (with what seems to be a clothing sweatshop hidden in the back), a place many city slickers might recognize as home.

What made Quarantine the most frightening for me in particular was not the gore or the booga-booga scare factor, but rather the disturbing plausibility of its fictional disease. In reality, all we hear about are the dangers of diseases like HIV jumping from bushmeat to humans, and the avian or swine flu incubating in impoverished nations where people live in close quarters with animals. What about those of us living in developed, supposedly civilized cites, full of dogs, roaches, rats, and yes, a certain number of crazy nutjobs?

A hyper-evolved form of the rabies virus is the most plausible pseudo-scientific explanation I’ve yet heard for zombies, especially compared to the vaguely described Venusian radiation in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Like the “superflu” in Stephen King’s The Stand and the distilled “rage” virus in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, this strain of rabies was genetically engineered by a lone terrorist holed up in the attic of the tenement. An ominous clue is dropped halfway through the film about an unaccounted-for tenant living in the attic. When we finally meet him, he appears to have been infected for quite some time. Blind and emaciated, he scrambles around in the total darkness of his former home and laboratory (scattered with disgusting medical photos and newspaper clippings about Doomsday Cults). The creepy figure is played by the unusually tall and slender Doug Jones, most recently seen as the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four and Abe Sapien in Hellboy. I worked on the official website for Guillermo Del Toro’s marvelous Pan’s Labyrinth, for which Jones was interviewed about his experiences playing The Faun and The Pale Man; for someone that so typically plays monsters, he’s a super-nice, funny, and charming dude. I skimmed through the bonus features on the Quarantine DVD, and it’s a crying shame that he apparently wasn’t interviewed.

In place of a musical score, Quarantine features a complex sound design built around an eerily creaking, groaning old building. It also forgoes other standard movie pleasures, being a gruesome, depressing, and punishing experience. In that respect, it’s similar to how the nauseatingly (literally) bleak Blindness. In contrast, the sublime Children of Men is the rare movie nightmare set at the brink of the end of humanity that nevertheless carries a spark of uplift and hope.

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2 Stars Movies

A Disease Immune to Bureaucracy: Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness

Director Fernando Meirelles has examined desperate pressure cookers (City of God) and institutional corruption (The Constant Gardener) before. Blindness proves perfect to meld both themes, with a science fiction twist imagining the downfall of civilization itself.

Blindness is part of a special subset of the horror/sci-fi/disaster genre: the dystopian end-of-civilization nightmare. Whereas the typical entry works by introducing a disrupting element into the status quo (typically a monster), a few instead subtract one fundamental fact of life that we take for granted. The basic recipe is simple: flip one switch, and watch civilization fall in short order. In Children of Men, humanity becomes infertile. In The Happening, the biosphere starts pumping out poison. In the comic book series Y: The Last Man, all males on the planet suddenly die off. In innumerable zombie flicks death is no longer absolute. It may not be a coincidence that at least two members of the Blindness cast already have relevant experience on their resumes: Julianne Moore in Children of Men and Alice Braga in I Am Legend.

Mark Ruffalo and Julianne More in Blindness
“The only thing more terrifying than blindness is being the only one who can see.”

All of these stories bleed over into the genre realms of science fiction and horror. Blindness, however, is based on the magical realist (if it’s accurate for me to call it that) novel by Jose Saramago. The novel is set in a generic city, featuring unnamed characters (the movie, filmed in Sao Paulo, Brazil, effectively preserves both conceits – I didn’t notice until the credits rolled that the characters did not have names). Without getting bogged down in pseudo-scientific details, Zaramago posits a highly contagious “White Blindness” that rapidly sweeps the globe, affecting everyone but one random woman. The movie’s explanation is a far more literal highly communicable disease, diagnosed for the audience by the unnamed opthamologist “Doctor” (Mark Ruffalo). By sheer coincidence, The Doctor’s Wife (Moore) appears to be immune.

The obvious challenge for the filmmakers is how to render a prose story about blindness into the most visual storytelling medium of all. Cinematographer César Charlone (who also shot City of God and The Constant Gardener) meets the challenge by creating stunning visuals which paradoxically obscure. The picture frequently flares into a burned-out whiteness, often a relief from the ugly filth in which the characters find themselves living as the safety net of society collapses.

The story brutally details a basically pessimistic view of human nature. Right from the start, humanity’s inherent greed and avarice make a catastrophic situation worse. The very first victim of the disease is immediately exploited by a car thief (ironic, as automobiles are shortly to become the most futile of valuables to steal). As the blindness disease spreads, the authorities (represented by The Minister of Health, in what amounts to a cameo by Sandra Oh) attempt to contain the infected in isolation wards, a weak euphemism for concentration camps. As The Man With the Black Eye Patch (Danny Glover) states in a nicely written but implausibly eloquent monologue, “the disease was immune to bureaucracy.”

Danny Glover, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo in Blindness
“I know that part inside you with no name, and that’s who we are, right?”

The infected are made up of characters from many cultural and economic backgrounds, much like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006). Left alone to self-organize, two opposing societies coalesce around two very different natural leaders. The Doctor and his Wife create a fragile but functioning democracy, but the King of Ward Three (Gael Garci­a Bernal) forges a depraved Sodom built on exploiting their few resources for short-term base pleasures. Inevitably, the two fledgling states go to war, as much out of ideology as for want of resources.

As the ward denizens’ circumstances get worse and worse, the movie itself becomes a punishing experience to watch (an imitative fallacy). In terms of depictions of violence, it is no less explicit than, say, Children of Men, but wholly lacks that superior film’s dark wit and essential thread of hope. Whereas Children of Men had no real villain (Luke, Chiwetel Ejiofor, was actually more of a Che Guevarra-type revolutionary), there is little or no subtlety of character in Blindness‘ wholly evil bad guys. Would the central allegory be more interesting to ponder if the villains were not so unambiguously monstrous? Even I Am Legend dropped hints that its vampire/zombie-like monsters possessed crude intelligence, a will to live, and empathy for their own kind.

The fragile community in the wards disintegrates into a hell of gang rape and open war. Then, amazingly, it gets worse. But as the walls of the prison burn, the prisoners discover the doors have actually been left open. If anything, the world outside has become worse off than the pressure cooker in which they were imprisoned. After a harrowing trip through the devastated city, they experience one fleeting moment of joy as they bathe in the rain. Afterwards, they set up an eden in the Doctor and his Wife’s former home, like a less-satiric version of the fortified suburban shopping mall in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The Doctor’s Wife’s newly extended family embraces her as their “leader with vision.”

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4 Stars Movies

Cinema Immortal: Tarsem Singh’s The Fall

Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (2000) was one of the best-looking bad movies I’ve ever seen. It certainly wasn’t helped by the presence of Jennifer Lopez or the routine serial killer plot possibly meant to capitalize on the success of David Fincher’s Se7en (both having come from the same studio, New Line Cinema). But it was tragically obvious that Tarsem (as he is simply known) was a wildly talented visual stylist on a par with Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. So now, financed by his own money, in production for over four years in 20 countries, and presented by Fincher and Spike Jonze, Tarsem gets a chance to tell one of his own stories. He achieves a high level of spectacle without an ostentatiously high budget. Apart from a scene in which tattoos ink themselves upon a man’s torso, there is little apparent CGI. If Tarsem used more computer effects, they’re good enough to be invisible. And one of the best sequences, a nightmarish surgery, is executed as stop motion animation like something by The Brothers Quay.

Tarsem Singh The Fall
Inside the Grateful Dead t-shirt factory

The Fall opens in the aftermath of a surreal accident: a horse is lifted by crane from a deep gully after having apparently fallen off a bridge. That we eventually learn that this strange scene is merely a Hollywood Western movie set does not lessen the enjoyably dreamlike weirdness of the imagery. The real theme of the movie is of the power of storytelling through the intense visualization of movies, or even better, the imagination.

American stuntman Roy (Lee Pace) recuperates in a Southern Californian hospital. Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a little girl mending a broken arm, attaches herself to the bedridden mope. She had fallen from a tree while picking fruit with her Indian immigrant family in nearby orange groves, and now finds herself alone in the strange hospital, isolated not only by her age but also by the language barrier. She has never seen a movie and doesn’t really understand Roy’s job. But she is drawn to him, perhaps partly out of an innocent crush and partly out of her realization he, like she, is unusually imaginative.

Justine Waddell in The Fall
Justine Waddell’s fashions in The Fall will put your eye out

The slightly pudgy Untaru is a refreshing casting choice for a child character, endearing but not cloyingly cute or especially precocious. The physically and emotionally traumatized Roy is bemused by her at first, and shortly finds himself entertaining her with a serialized tale of epic derring-do. Roy’s fantastic adventure of the struggle between The Black Bandit against Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone) over the beautiful Evelyn (Justine Waddell) becomes a movie-within-the-movie, visualized through the filter of the girl’s meagre experiences but rich imagination. When the American describes an “Indian,” she pictures a man from India, and his “squaw” is an Indian princess. She casts her version of the story with Roy and people from the hospital. In the most Gilliam-esque image, the enemy knights resemble the hospital’s crudely armored X-Ray technicians.

Tarsem Singh The Fall
Our heroes wisely keep their distance

But it turns out Roy is a failed suicide case, heartbroken over losing the love of a beautiful starlet. The accident in the beginning of the film was his; both he and she are literally fallen people. Like Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the seemingly child-like tale he tells is shot through with dark undercurrents. Alexandria can just barely sense the pain embedded in the story, and is unequipped to truly grasp Roy’s deep anxieties that love and life are doomed. Is he being cruel by telling her this story, or is he trying to teach her his grim life lessons?

The conclusion has the feel of being transcendent and exciting, but lacks real punch. In a rapidly accelerating crescendo of cutting and music, Roy and Alexandria heal (physically and emotionally) and leave the hospital. As she grows up, she imagines Roy executing every stunt in every movie she sees for the rest of her life. It’s incredibly callous of me as a viewer to suggest that the story might have taken such a turn, but just imagine the impact this sequence would have had if Roy had killed himself after all… she would keep him alive forever in the movies in her head.

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2 Stars Movies

A Clash of Faiths: Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies

Ridley Scott’s follow up to the gentle comedy of A Good Year and the crime drama American Gangster (partly modeled, I think, on Michael Mann’s epic Heat), returns to the politically-themed yet still action-oriented territory he first visited in Black Hawk Down. The key difference here is that, like Peter Weir’s The Kingdom and Pete Travis’ Vantage Point, Body of Lies is set in a fantasyland safely divorced from the very, very real events that inspired Black Hawk Down. All of these films have the air of gritty realism, but still indulge in the wish fulfillment of a very cinematic war on terror.

Body of Lies can be seen as completing a kind of Middle East trilogy for Scott, after the aforementioned Black Hawk Down plus the Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. Screenwriter William Monahan wrote both Kingdom of Heaven and Body of Lies (adapted from the novel by David Ignatius). But of the three, the latter is clearly the least serious.

Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in Body of Lies
Mesopotamia, and step on it!

No doubt movie studio executives have calculated down to the last cent that world audiences are still too sensitive to actual terrorist attacks like London and Madrid in order to buy tickets for dramatic recreations on the big screen. Instead, most mainstream terrorism-themed movies are basically entertainments that only have the feel of serious import, and none of the substance. Body of Lies invents analogous terrorist attacks such as a sleeper cell blowing up their own London flat, and later, the bombing of a U.S. marine base in Turkey (I hope O’Neal – Demi Moore – from Scott’s G.I. Jane wasn’t stationed there). Vantage Point is a little more creative in imagining a worst-case-scenario of a presidential assassination, but has no interest in the repercussions beyond a Rashomon-like recounting of the immediate aftermath.

So audiences get films like this, where shadowy CIA operatives sneak around Iraq and Jordan, saving the world from Islamic fundamentalism. They have seemingly limitless resources but no government oversight, and anything is possible with a little computer hacking. Meanwhile, more serious and realistic movies are ignored, like In the Valley of Elah and the truly excellent but emotionally devastating United 93. In comparison, Scott’s Black Hawk Down was unafraid to recreate actual events still raw in the American public’s memory: the catastrophic marine incursion into Somalia in 1993. And even to limit the scope to Scott’s own oeuvre, Kingdom of Heaven is a much smarter consideration of the clash of faiths in the Middle East.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Golshifteh Farahani in Body of Lies
Leo meets cute with an Iranian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani)

Body of Lies is Russell Crowe’s fourth film with Scott, following Gladiator, A Good Year, and American Gangster. Here, he packs on some serious poundage to enter the same schlubby mode he debuted in Michael Mann’s The Insider, seasoned with a little of the crass bastard he played in A Good Year. Leonardo DiCaprio, on temporary loan from Martin Scorsese, sports a scrappy beard but still looks like a teenager. The pretty boy is constantly getting beaten up, cut, bruised, and losing fingers. But he meets cute with pretty Iranian nurse Aisah (Golshifteh Farahani), so that’s alright, then.

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2 Stars Movies

Every Day is Exactly the Same for James McAvoy in Wanted

The Nine Inch Nails song “Every Day is Exactly the Same” is so thematically perfect for the early part of Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted, that it seems to have been composed especially.

But Wanted is weighed down by an overly extensive backstory that goes back thousands of years, and an approach to violent spectacle that borders on the sadistic. It’s hard not to sense a trend, as I’ve had the same complaints about a couple other movies I happened to see recently: Hancock, Speed Racer, and Southland Tales.

Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy play assassins with superhuman abilities, directly tied to the action choreography and special effects: the power to “throw” bullets and slow down their perception of time in order to move superhumanly fast. All of this is framed in close and medium shots, a bad choice for an action film that ought to display its stunts and derring-do in full. It’s more visually disorientating than even the hyperkinetic Speed Racer, but the slow-mo sequences paradoxically render the proceedings rather boring — even when something that ought to be impressive is happening, a bullet sliced in twain by sword.

It’s difficult to feel sympathy for a protagonist who, when causing a literal train wreck, resumes his murderous mission instead of aiding the countless innocent bystanders he has turned into collateral damage. In the end, Wesley smugly asks, “What the fuck have you done lately?” So, becoming a superhuman assassin has granted Wesley self-actualization: he’s free of his botched relationship and dead-end job, he’s physically fit, and he shoots people in the head for a living.

So, Wanted flirts with the nihilistic themes of David Fincher and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, but without the irony. What many surface-level admirers of Fight Club seem to forget is that while it initially seems to celebrate its unnamed protagonist’s decisive break from the supposedly stifling bounds of society, his self-help credo attracts the wrong kind of followers and spins out of control to its ultimate logical end: anarchy.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Hancock begs to be read as a metaphor, but for what?

Peter Berg’s Hancock refreshingly begins in the middle, bypassing the superhero genre’s now-standard structure. But that leaves a great deal of mythology to relate later, especially for a story not based on an already well-known household name like Spider-Man or Batman. But like most superhero movies, it neatly lays groundwork for potential sequels and prequels.

Will Smith and Charlize Theron play estranged exes, who also happen to be thousands-year-old creatures that are mortal when paired — which begs to be read as some kind of metaphor, but for what? Mary (Theron) is married to a mortal (Jason Bateman), but how does an unemployed P.R. guy afford a gigantic house in L.A.? How did he get his great reputation if he’s unemployed?

Even when you learn Mary’s back story, her behavior doesn’t make sense. A gross, unfunny sex scene opens a pandora’s box of plot holes: how do they have sex with humans? Not to mention give birth? Is a half-mortal child also superhuman? How did Mary plan on explaining her agelessness to her husband and child? One of them was on the scene as recently as 80 years ago, so why have none of these creatures ever been heard from before, throughout history?

Hancock is shot in a notably expressive handheld camera style, and features special effects by John Dykstra (of The Matrix and Speed Racer fame). The DVD bonus features reveal many effects and stunts were done practically. Co-producer Michael Mann has a cameo appearance, and was attached to direct as some point, and the idea of a Mann superhero flick is truly something to imagine.

A few extra observations on the cast:

  • Casting a major movie star like Charlize Theron in what seems at first to be a small role is a kind of spoiler, but that spoiler is itself spoiled in a fleeting shot included in the trailer.
  • Jason Bateman’s characteristic dry, wry sense of humor is a big asset here, but he doesn’t seem to emote during scenes in which his character’s wife is dying.
  • Eddie Marsan can easily pivot from Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, to Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, proving he must be one of the most versatile actors working.
Categories
3 Stars Movies

Ghost Town is The Sixth Sense as a romantic comedy

David Koepp’s Ghost Town pulls at the heartstrings without being too nauseating. With a tagline that implies The Sixth Sense as a romantic comedy, its tone and subject matter are roughly comparable to As Good As It Gets: the thawing of a misanthrope with some good qualities. It mostly earns it, but the last 2-3 lines of dialog don’t feel natural — the sort of thing a screenwriter might jot down first, and then later write an entire screenplay around. It’s a real bittersweet irony for Bertram’s (Ricky Gervais) first real friend (Greg Kinnear) to literally disappear.

Poor Téa Leoni is once again saddled with an age-inappropriate love interest, as she was with Ben Kingsley in You Kill Me. I can’t picture Gwen and Bertram as lovers, but I can see them as forging a real friendship, amidst their unique situation. Their characters are well-drawn enough that I can buy his ironic wit appealing to her while her supposedly perfect fiancé may be a good human being but is utterly humorless.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Robert Downey Jr.’s got a bum ticker in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man

Jon Favreau’s Iron Man finds just the right tone for a superhero movie, pitched somewhere in the sweet spot between Spider-Man’s emotional melodrama and Batman’s grim vengeance. This blogger, a former lover of comic books (that stopped keeping up with them partly out of frugality, and partly lack of brain bandwidth), sees two high water marks in the recent surge of superhero-themed Hollywood feature films:

Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies captured the key themes that made Spider-Man such a popular and lasting character in the first place (seriously, find me a kid in the English-speaking world who does not know all about Spider-Man). The comic book on its simplest level was a parable of the sometimes unwelcome changes that come with adolescence. Also key to Peter Parker’s teen psyche was his constant negotiation between his own happiness and responsibilities towards friends, family, and society. Please, let’s not discuss the painfully awful Spider-Man 3; the bitter wounds of disappointment are still raw, oozing, and infected.

The other comic book superhero franchise to translate well to the screen in recent years is, of course, Batman. Helmed by such mature, serious artists as director Christopher Nolan and actor Christian Bale, Batman Begins perhaps could not help but to turn out as well as it did. The comic book character was originally conceived as a lone vigilante avenger in the 1930s, descended into camp self-parody in the 60s, then reverted back to grim form in the 70s. The character followed a parallel arc in his movie incarnations: Tim Burton’s Batman films are dark and weirdly wonderful, Joel Schumacher’s are tacky and cheesy, and now Christopher Nolan has restored the franchise back to its gothic roots. Note that Heath Ledger as the Joker in the upcoming sequel Batman The Dark Knight doesn’t actually smile!

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man
Talk to the… nah, that’s too easy

Iron Man was heavily marketed as Robert Downey Jr.’s redemption after decades of louche behavior led to him becoming unhirable (or more accurately, uninsurable). Was Downey perfectly cast, or was the role tailored to suit him? If anything, from what little I know of the comics, the filmmakers may have actually toned Iron Man’s alter-ego Tony Stark down. Physical disability is a long-established theme in Marvel Comics’ stable of characters, take for example the blind Daredevil. Stark’s distinguishing characteristic was his bum ticker, but he was also famously an alcoholic prick. Do you think, perhaps, there’s a metaphor to be found in the character of a soulless arms dealer who loses his literal heart but finds his conscience? Hmmm…

Terrance Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Downey Jr., and Jeff Bridges in Iron Man
Djay da Pimp, Viola De Lesseps, Charlie Chaplin, and The Dude star in Iron Man

Jeff Bridges totally rocks a bald pate, and blessedly underplays his role as chief baddie Obadiah Stane. He’s the mellow voice of reason, sounding for all the world like The Dude with an M.B.A. That is, until he raises his voice for the first time, and the good times are over, man. Unfortunately, Gwyneth Paltrow (as the alliterative Pepper Potts) and Terrence Howard (Jim Rhodes) don’t fare as well. Paltrow, with little experience in the sci-fi effects blockbuster genre, is hysterically unconvincing at running away from fireballs in high heels (you can imagine her pouting “But Harvey said I don’t have to run from fireballs!”). Howard is just plain boring, with little to say or do.

Iron Man is quite enjoyable, provided you try to ignore the rather conservative gung-ho attitude toward the war on terror. It only disappoints at the very end, when it devolves into a CGI rock ’em sock ’em robot battle. It was inevitable according to the genre, and the natural trajectory of the plot, but still…

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