Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Spirit - 2008

"The Spirit" - 2008
Dir. by Frank Miller - 1 hr. 43 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There are people who will try to convince you that "The Spirit" is one of the worst comic book movies ever made.  Those people are not your friends, they have no insight into the material at hand, and speak in hyperbole because they're unable to grasp the concept of relativity.  They also have poor manners, smell like garbage, frequently don't wash their hands after going to the bathroom because "I didn't pee on my hands," like Journey unironically, and probably have something in their house with the word "artisinal" on the label.  This is only the first couple sentences of these people's psychological profile, but the truth of the matter is that people who don't like "The Spirit" also don't like themselves.  To put it in perspective, there's been an awful lot of haterade being sipped upon in regards to Frank Miller over the last decade, and this film got gobbled up along with it.  My argument is that this is actually a fine film sunk by the fact that a lot of people didn't get the tone of it, and that people were still mad about "Dark Knight 2," and that a lot of people will name-drop Will Eisner without have ever read anything by him in the first place.

A dead cop named Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) comes back from the dead, puts a Lone Ranger mask on, and becomes The Spirit, an extra-legal vigilante that works in tandem with Central City's police force, Commissioner Dolan (Dan Lauria) in particular.  The Spirit's main foe is The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), who is locked in a mortal battle with The Spirit, but there's more to that than there initially seems.  There are also a number of women circling The Spirit, some good, some bad.

There are a number of problems in adapting "The Spirit" into a movie.  First, it was a comic strip that started roughly during World War II and ran through the early 1950's (albeit with a changing creative team), and at least one of the main characters was drawn in a racially insensitive way (Eisner swore that it wasn't done with malice, it was just the convention of the time, and apologized for it).  Secondly, the strip itself was episodic (each story was eight pages long, and there weren't really many stories that extended beyond that), so trying to cobble together a feature-length story out of bits and fragments is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle made out of a bunch of jigsaw puzzles.  Thirdly, the lasting historical importance of Eisner's "The Spirit" stories had much less to do with the stories themselves than with Eisner's creative design, page layouts, and storytelling innovations.  Fourth, Eisner passed away a couple of years before this film began production, and it was reported that Frank Miller agreed to take on the project partially out of fear for how badly the film might turn out in lesser hands (Miller and Eisner were good friends, and there's even a book published of their discussions on the artform of comic books).  Fifth, this is probably the single most famous image from "The Spirit" comics:

So, the upshot is that the character in question is pretty much only famous because it's creator went on to become a pioneer of graphic novels (later, of course), and the stories that were created are more famous for their execution than their content, and there was fear that the movie would get made by people who didn't "get it."  And instead, the audience didn't get it.  Part of the misunderstanding is that Frank Miller's work can come off as taking itself too seriously (with things like gruff voices and overtly focused characters), but that in itself is the satire.  And, instead of viewing this version of "The Spirit" as being a fun send up of a very-dated character and concept, people assumed that Miller was the one that missed the mark.  Which is probably because no one had ever bothered to read "The Spirit" in the first place.

I'm baffled as to how people could have missed that this was a comedy.  At which point do you not get that these are jokes; when The Spirit goes around trying to identify Sand Seref (Eva Mendes) with a photocopy of her ass?  And successfully does so?!? When The Octopus' clones run around, identical and identified by single words on their shirt like "huevos" and "rancheros?"  Perhaps The Octopus giving a giant speech in nazi regalia to a bound Spirit could have been a clue?  Or when Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) raves about how much she loves her lifestyle because she gets to run around looking awesome all the time?  Maybe the problem is that people assumed the source material was more somber, to which I'd refer you to the image two paragraphs prior.

But if you're determined to hate anything that Frank Miller does, if you're determined to be clueless about what you're watching, if you're the sort of person who thinks it's the height of taste to dismiss the Batman movies because of Christian Bale's voice, just stay away from "The Spirit."  Not just because you're wasting your time being hard-headed, not just because you're willing yourself to have a bad time, but also because I just don't want to hear it.  Complaining about everything under the sun isn't a sign that you've developed great taste, it's just exhausting.  And it must be exhausting to live that way.  I prefer to enjoy fun movies that are jammed full of craziness and beautiful women (and c'mon, this is a murderer's row of beauty), and I'm going to keep doing that.  You can keep frowning at everything, and I hope your frowns give you painful, itchy hemorrhoids, so that you can truly have something to complain about.

3 / 5 - Streaming

Monday, March 30, 2015

Inherent Vice - 2014

"Inherent Vice"  - 2014
Dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson - 2 hrs. 28 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Inherent Vice" ended up being a nearly perfect situation for me.  I'd read the book when it came out, and really enjoyed it (it was my first Thomas Pynchon novel, and I was lured in by the notion of his doing a detective story), but it's been just long enough since I've read the book that I'd forgotten a lot of the details, and thus could just kick back and enjoy the movie and still be surprised from time to time.  So that way, I got to enjoy the story twice.  For those who aren't in the same boat, I think this version of "Inherent Vice" is shaggy enough, clever enough, funny enough, and nicks tone from "The Big Lebowski" (and "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, for that matter) enough that it's going to be a good time for a lot of people.

In 1970, in a beach community in Los Angeles, there lives a detective named Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix).  He's constantly referred to as either "doper" or "hippie," both of which are dead on.  An old flame, Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), with a new look shows up at his pad in the middle of the night, asking for help and playing off his unresolved feelings for her.  The entire problem rests on locating her current fella, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who is a big-time developer, is being targeted for his fortune by his wife and her lover, and who have offered to cut Shasta in.  But Mickey disappears, and Doc gets drawn further and further into a very complicated story.

Quickly, I felt that the movie did justice to the source material, and also was an entertaining movie on it's own.  I doubt that enough people read "Inherent Vice" for there to be a need to adhere to the source material word-by-word, in order to avoid outraged throngs.  The biggest things were that the film was cast very well, preserved (and in some cases, amplified) the shaggy tone of the novel, and that it worked as a film.  That's what matters to me, so no need to get further into that.

I have read a number of detective/crime stories over the years; aside from comedy, it's my mindless entertainment genre of choice.  The stock tropes of detective stories largely have been unchanged since Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, and Dashiell Hammett put pen to paper; it's liquor, bullets, being wronged by beautiful women while trying to untangle a knot of cords.  It works.  But if you're going to make a story in that vein currently, you're competing against nearly 100 years solid of very, very good work, all taking up residency on the bookshelf next to your attempts.  So as much as I enjoy reading that kind of story, it's also fun to see someone try to twist the genre on it's ear.  If you change the liquor to weed and psychedelics, you end up with something like "Inherent Vice."  Or, like I mentioned before, "The Big Lebowski" or "Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas."  But you don't see attempts like this often, because the old formula still works just fine.  And that's one of the reasons that "Inherent Vice" stands out.

The tone of this film, especially compared with other detective stories, is kind of light.  Or a bit hazy.  There are lots of awful things going on, but the only person who ever seems to get mad is Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), a police officer who seems to have a love/hate relationship with Doc.  Everyone else is a little fuzzy, maybe a bit nostalgic or rueful, but as would befit the life of Doc, everything seems kind of tranquilized.  And when things get hairy, they actually get funnier, because the notion that any of these people (other than a handful of squares) could manage to organize crime in any meaningful way is kind of funny.

For me, the main appeal of the film was the tone of it.  The story itself makes sense, although it meanders at times, and it's interesting enough to keep one's attention.  But the fact of the matter is that the world of "Inherent Vice" is populated with some real weirdos, Doc being one of the least of them.  And seeing how they bump up against each other is like 75% of the fun.  So a lot of the credit for that has to go to the casting, and the performances of the cast themselves.  Joaquin Phoneix carries the movie, always looking like he's trying to figure something out that's just out of his grasp.  His big foil, Bigfoot, played by Josh Brolin, starts off as an asshole, ends up offering a lot of understanding for how he got that way, and spends the meantime doing things that make you wonder if he's trolling people or acting in a way that he's not aware of.  There are a lot of smaller roles that shine as well, especially Martin Short (in a purple velvet suit, even) and Owen Wilson.  Then there are all the women, all of whom are attracted to Doc, even if they don't want to be.  The biggie is Shasta, played by Katherine Waterston, who subtly pulls on and plays with Doc in ways that borderline on maliciousness, but her behavior and the on-screen relationship with Phoenix feels very real, and at times gives the scenes a voyeuristic uncomfortableness.

I'm not going to pretend that "Inherent Vice" is one of the greatest detective stories ever committed to film, but it's a highly entertaining one, and one that's different from most.  It has a distinctive feel, and the nearly two and a half hour runtime flies by.  There are some great performances here, and the story is solid enough to lay a good foundation for the hazy tone that's the real draw here.  And when you see the scene with Bigfoot eating a frozen banana, I defy you to tell me "Inherent Vice" isn't a fun movie.

4 / 5 - Theatre