December 30, 2008

So Tough To Kill!

You know, I gotta stop making ultimatums before I see the finished product. Before tonight, I was all set to name 2008 as, "The Year of The Comic Book Super Hero." The Dark Knight was the best comic book adaptation ever. Hellboy 2 combined a ton of stylized action with Guillermo Del Toro's unique sense of style. Iron Man resurrected Robert Downey Jr. and kick started a brilliant franchise. The Incredible Hulk was good enough, and Wanted was just plain fun. It was all looking so gravy. Then The Spirit came along. Heh, heh, I'm gonna have to come up with a better, more appropriate title for this year.
The Spirit takes place in Central City, in some weird, screwed up version of the 1950s where the people have cell phones. So, there's this guy, called The Spirit, who is dead, I think. Well, he is technically dead, but he still manages to jump across the rooftops, beat the crap out of criminals, and seduce the pants off every woman he meets. But, since this is a comic adaptation, there needs to be a villain. The said villain is called The Octopus, so called, because he has eight of everything, which isn't actually true, but whatever, we'll role with it. Then there are some girls with connections to The Spirit. There's his doctor. There's the old flame. There's The Octopus' henchwoman. There's the... oh, christ, I can't go on, this shit is bananas! The story is based on a line of comics by Will Eisner, and if this movie is any indication, it's pretty  haphazardly put together. 
Gabriel Macht plays The Spirit, and I quite liked him, actually. He's pretty monotone, keeps one expression for the whole time, and has no chemistry with the females. And he monologues... like, all the time. Dear God, please stop the monologues! But, he's supposed to be dead, so I bought it. There are three main girls caught up in the mix. Sarah Paulson plays Ellen Dolan, The Spirit's, uh, physician. Pretty much every scene she is in is ridiculous. She's bad, let's leave it at that. Scarlett Johansson plays Silken Floss (yes, that's her name), The Octopus' sidekick, who has a really bad habit of explaining the bad guy's master plan right before the put the hero in a situation where he can escape. Johansson is also really bad. Again, let's leave it at that. And there's Eva Mendes, who plays Sand Saref, world class jewel thief and old flame of The Spirit. Her only real contribution to the film is that she shows some skin. Really, the only purpose the women in this movie serve is providing pure, unadulterated eye candy. All you feminists, eat your heart out! And Samuel L. Jackson, as The Octopus, really overacts. In this year's Scenery Chewing Awards, he takes Best of the Year, Best of the Decade, and Lifetime Achievement. It's entertaining, to be sure, but come on, Mr. Jackson. What happened to you doing roles in movies like Pulp Fiction, Unbreakable, and Patriot Games. Man, you are a sellout!
So, director Frank Miller is really good at making a good looking film, and that's about it. Like Sin City and 300, which he created, The Spirit is drenched in style. The two main colors are black and white, which makes the red tint of blood, or the bright glow of gold pretty much jump off the screen and punch you in the face. It's awesome. But, when it comes to making a story not steeped in cliches, crafting characters we can care about, and coming up with some witty scenarios amid all the bloodshed, he kinda fails. Sure, the movie looks great, but we've come to expect that from him. It's fucking Frank Miller! But he also wrote the script. He comes up with some weird premise involving the blood of Hercules, or something. It's not really explained. Come to think of it, a lot of things in this movie are not really explained. Like, why the hell is Samuel L. Jackson dressed up like a samurai in this scene? And then, why the hell is he dressed like a Nazi in another scene thirty minutes later? Expect headaches. Miller also took a lot of cues from the movie of Sin City, namely the crazy amount of narration from the hero. But, in Sin City, Robert Rodriguez had the sense to cast actors with some sort of emotion in their voices. Miller made the wise choice to cast a monotone actor as the hero. There are so many things wrong with this, from crap script and casting, to an overbearing use of special effects. Oh, so many problems.
Like I said, The Spirit single handedly ruins 2008's chances to be a flawless year of comic book adaptations. Granted, most of the other ones were so good, the title will probably stick. But, I still hate this movie. Somewhere, in his grave, Will Eisner is crying.

December 13, 2008

When a President Does It...

With Oscar season in full swing, it's no surprise that the movies coming out will be some of the best of the year. Of all the heavy award contenders hitting the theaters, probably the best is Frost/Nixon, an astounding film that will get nominated for some big awards and easily finds itself in my Top Ten.
The year is 1974, and Richard Nixon has just resigned the office of the President of the United States in the wake of the massive clusterfuck that was Watergate. Many Americans are outraged that the man who committed, quite possibly, the worst crime in the history of the nation will walk free. Enter ambitious and carefree talk show host, David Frost. Frost gets the brilliant idea to interview Nixon, hoping to rake in the numbers, and give him his ticket back into American television. At first, Frost's goals don't stretch far from, make lot's of money and achieve fame and fortune. But soon, the interview becomes much more then that. Soon, Frost and his team are driven by one ulterior motive, to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had. The screenplay is based off a Tony Award winning play by Peter Morgan, which was based on the actual interviews of Nixon conducted by Frost. It moves at a breakneck pace, keeping the viewer riveted to the screen as you watch these two clash and the sparks fly. And, oh, do they fly.
Frank Langella and Michael Sheen both reprise their roles from the stage as Nixon and Frost, respectively. They do not so much as imitate the people they are playing, but embody then. Langella especially is amazing as Nixon, giving a powerful and forceful performance. He becomes Nixon, showing us the conflict and regret behind the cold exterior that he showed the world. Langella will get an Oscar nomination, and he may very well win. I think Sean Penn did a better job in Milk, but if anyone is going to challenge him, it will be Langella. Michael Sheen is also sensational as the fun loving and quick witted Frost. Sheen is right at home in these political controversy films. This is a far different role from his turn as Tony Blair in The Queen, but it's just as engrossing and fun to watch. The other main role, and, I think, the best performance of the movie, falls to Sam Rockwell as James Reston Jr., the man who spearheaded Frost's investigation of Nixon. Rockwell is fantastic as, it seems, the only man on Frost's side who initially wants to bring Nixon down. He gives us some of the film's few laughs, while simultaneously giving us most of it's heart. Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfayden, Kevin Bacon, and Rebecca Hall also all turn in great performances as other players behind the scenes. 
Director Ron Howard has never disappointed, from Apollo 13, to A Beautiful Mind, to The Da Vinci Code. (Yes, I liked The Da Vinci Code.) Frost/Nixon blows them all out of the water with it's quality and attention to detail. Howard is very aware of the time that the story is set in. Anti-Vietnam War sentiment absolutely drenches pretty much every scene, as does the new found love of famous people that was emerging. It's a pleasure to see Rockwell shout down Frost for not caring about convicting Nixon, then becoming star struck by the likes of Neil Diamond and Hugh Hefner. Everything from the clothes and hairstyles, to the cars and camera equipment used evokes 1970s America, and America tired of war and losing faith in their government that they had come to trust. I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about it.
If I have to criticize the movie, and I do, I would say the small, little romantic sub-plot involving Frost and Rebecca Hall's Caroline Cushing could have gone so much further. I understand it's not the focus of the film, but it doesn't seem to have any purpose in the state it's in. Granted Hall does a good job, and she and Sheen have real chemistry, but with all the political and social commentary being thrown in the mix, it just seems like an afterthought. Do not let the lack of romance dissuade you though. The movie is no less fascinating with the lack of some sexual activity. 
It will be a colossal shock is Frost/Nixon does not get some recognition come February 22. At the time I am writing this, it has been nominated for 5 Golden Globes, with Howard and Langella each snagging one. It's up against some heavy competition, but it is good enough to pull through. Seek out this most extraordinary movie. It is well worth your $10 and 2 hours.