Bored in the U.S.A.


Just sittin’ and talkin’ ’bout things.

(2018) Drama (Old Academy) Kelly Lloyd, Chris Milner, Bryan Preston. Directed by Mike Finazzo

 

Sometimes what we need is to just talk. Not just talk, but also listen – an actual adult conversation about things that are important. You know, life things. Relationships, dreams, disappointments – the things that keep us going and the things that keep us crying.

Kelly (Lloyd) is married. She stays at home and takes care of the house; she and her husband Bryan (Preston) don’t have kids and there doesn’t seem to be a horizon where that is likely. Their sex is desultory and passionless. Kelly is filling her days as best she can but her friends are busy with their own lives, lives that make hers seem empty and small.

Chris (Milner) is a Londoner living in Baltimore but he’s preparing to return to the UK. He’s engaged to be married and is joining his fiancée back at home. He is in the process of selling his things in preparation for his departure. Despite this, he feels some uncertainty that he is making the right decision.

Kelly and Chris had met years earlier at a party. When they bump into each other, they remember their initial meeting. They get to talking and a cup of coffee turns into spending the day together. Their reflections on how their lives turned out force them to evaluate their past and the decisions they’ve made – as well as their futures.

This is a quiet film that mostly relies on the chemistry and conversational skills of the two leads. For the most part, it works. These are discussions that most of us have had at one time or another, or at least on the subject matter. Of course, your wording may vary. As someone who is interested in words, I enjoyed the ones that Kelly and Chris were uttering in general, and well-written dialogue is always a plus especially in indie films that rely on it. The exception is that Kelly is constantly making reference to the fact that this is set in Baltimore. I get the love Finazzo has for the place – Baltimore ain’t called Charm City for nothin’ – but it’s unnecessary and distracting.

There is a little bit of pretentiousness here; the decision to film the movie in black and white really doesn’t add anything to the film but it doesn’t take anything away. At one point, one of the characters says that “life is simpler in black and white” and that may be, but simpler isn’t necessarily better. Also the soundtrack is littered with French pop songs, bringing to mind film students arguing the merits of Jacques Tati while smoking clove cigarettes and drinking overpriced coffee.

That pretension will likely turn some people off but if you can get past that, this is actually a delightful little film. I wouldn’t say it’s terribly insightful; what you’re getting here are more experiential observations and they may not match your interpretation of them but that’s fine. It’s a healthy thing once in awhile to hear some differing opinions of the things you are going through, have been through or might someday go through.

REASONS TO SEE: The conversational aspect works.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is on the pretentious side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sex, drug use and crude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to being a filmmaker, Finazzo is also a standup comedian.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunrise
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Reinventing Rosalee

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Shadow (Ying)


Here comes the rain again.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu, Xiaotong Guan, Lei Wu, Bai Feng. Directed by Yimou Zhang

Perhaps the most acclaimed film director to come out of China is Yimou Zhang, whose wuxia classics Hero and The House of Flying Daggers have thrilled art house moviegoers for more than a decade. However more recently, missteps like his anglicized The Great Wall failed to connect with mass audiences. However, his latest is a return to form. Garnering massive critical acclaim from its debut at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the movie is once again familiar territory for the great action director, set during the Three Kingdoms period in China.

Commander Yu (Deng) is the beloved general of the Pei Kingdom’s armies who was gravely wounded in battle with the nearly invulnerable General Yang (Hu). However, he appears to be well on the mend and his somewhat prevaricating King (Zheng) is surprised to discover that his impetuous Commander has picked a fight with the man who recently wounded him with the city of Jing, which had been lost to the invaders of Yang Kingdom, going to the winner.

However, the King doesn’t want these events to lead to war so he instead offers his sister (Guan) as concubine to Yang’s son (Wu). What the King doesn’t know is that the Commander isn’t who he appears to be; he is a commoner named Jing (also Deng) who is serving as the real Yu’s shadow, or impostor. Yu has schemed to use the fake Yu as a diversion while a handpicked army of renegades retakes the city. Knowing that this will not only embarrass the king but also lose him what political capital he might have with the nobles, Yu expects to take the throne for himself. Complicit in the dealings is Madame (Sun), Yu’s devious wife. The machinations are almost Machiavellian – some would say Shakespearean.

Zhang as a director is known for his extravagant use of color but he goes in entirely the opposite direction here. Greys and whites and blacks make up the majority of his palate, giving the film an almost black and white look to the point that at times I wondered if he hadn’t shot the film in black and white. Extraordinarily, he did not – everything here is about production design and costuming. In itself it’s an incredible achievement. However, it does get distracting at times. There is also an awful lot of dialogue which isn’t of itself a bad thing but it forces us to be reading the subtitles rather than taking in the marvelous visuals. I’m not often an advocate for dubbing but here is an example where it might have gone better had they gone in that direction.

There is a good deal of gore here but the martial arts sequences are elegantly staged, often using the ubiquitous rainfall as an ally – Yimou even posits umbrellas being used as a weapon, giving the battles an almost feminine grace and a touch of whimsy – a group of battle-hardened warriors slide down a city street in overturned umbrellas in a kind of martial arts waterslide effect. In all, this is a return to form for Yimou and a must-see for any fan of Asian cinema, particularly of the wuxia variety. While it is for the moment on the Festival circuit, it is expected to be in limited theatrical release in May and through the summer. Start bugging your local art house programmer to book this one now.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is epic in scope. The ending is full of twists and turns and has a fair amount of gore for those who love that. The zither duel is absolutely spellbinding.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie lacks color particularly in the palace scenes, a bit of a switch for Yimou.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts and war violence and some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The black and white tones that most of the film is shot in is meant not only to emphasize the relationship between light and shadow but to also follow in the style of Chinese ink wash paintings.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House of Flying Daggers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Bring Me an Avocado

Paterson


Paterson and Laura see things in black and white.

Paterson and Laura see things in black and white.

(2016) Drama (Bleecker Street/Amazon) Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Nellie, Rizwan Manji, Barry Shabaka Henley, Trevor Parham, Troy T. Parham, Brian McCarthy, Frank Harts, Luis Da Silva Jr., Chasten Harmon, William Jackson Harper, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Kacey Cockett, Kara Hayward, Jared Gilman, Sterling Jerins, Masatoshi Nagase, Sophia Muller. Directed by Jim Jarmusch

 

Paterson is a bus driver. Paterson is also coincidentally the name of the New Jersey town in which Paterson plies his trade. It is not coincidentally the home of famed 20th century poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. Paterson (the bus driver) also writes poetry in a journal he keeps with him. He scribbles during lunch breaks and before he starts work. He uses mundane, everyday subjects to inspire him. He leads a mundane, everyday life.

Director Jarmusch is notorious (or acclaimed) for finding the rhythms of life and setting his films to those rhythms. We see Paterson’s routine; getting up in the morning at 6:15 precisely, eating breakfast with his wife Laura (Farahani), going to work, coming home for dinner – Laura is apparently not much of a cook but he gamely is polite about pretending to enjoy it. Afterwards he takes his English bulldog Marvin out for a walk, ending up at his favorite watering hole talking with Doc (Henley) the bartender and then heading home to go to sleep with his wife.

We follow Paterson in his routine over the course of a week. It’s not a particularly important week – just a normal, mundane, everyday week. His wife is making cupcakes for a popup farmer’s market. She has ordered a guitar which she paints black and white like everything else in the house and dreams of becoming a country music star, which would be a bit of a stretch being that she is an immigrant from Iran which in the current climate might not fly among a certain element that loves country. He overhears conversations on the bus, adjusts his mailbox which always seems to be leaning (late in the film we find out why), and sometimes just sits out by the beautiful waterfall that is Paterson’s pride and joy.

Paterson is definitely a working class environment. Some might remember that it was the town in which Ruben “Hurricane” Carter was framed for murder; it is referenced during the film but not dwelled upon, at least not as much as the fact that it was also the home of Lou Costello of Abbott and Costello fame. Then again, Laura’s penchant for black and white patterns might allude to the racial divide that led to one of the most notorious legal cases of the 20th century that was part of the DNA of Paterson at the time.

There is a beauty to the rhythms of life here. Jarmusch is an expert to finding the beauty in the mundane. But, as mundane as Jarmusch wants to make the environment of Paterson, he can’t help but populate it with quirky indie film characters that lend an air of “this isn’t real life in the rest of the world” to the film. I think in some ways it sabotages what he’s trying to do and for me it diminished the enjoyment of the film. Why can’t films about ordinary people actually have a few ordinary people in them?

Driver is a bit white bread here. He doesn’t really distinguish himself much which is likely what Jarmusch had in mind. Paterson (the bus driver) is basically a pretty nice guy without much ambition; his poetry is amazing (written by real life poet and Pulitzer prize winner Ron Padgett) but he refuses to publish them. He clings to them like a lap bar on a particularly scary roller coaster and when near the end of the film an event occurs that puts that to paid, it feels like it should be more liberating than it is. Or at least more traumatic than it seems.

I’m not really quite sure what to make of Paterson (the movie). On the one hand it achieves the “all about nothing” that the Seinfeld show aspired to. On the other, it definitely succumbs to indie film clichés. On a third hand, it plays as a cinematic tone poem, analogous to the works of Williams and T.S. Eliot. There’s beauty here but Jarmusch makes it oddly humorless, although there are occasional twitches of the lips that approximate smiles. It’s an elegant movie that’s not completely successful but is completely worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: This is very much a cinematic tone poem.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many quirky characters inhabit Paterson’s world.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Driver undertook training to drive the bus for three months in Queens; he passed is licensing test a week before shooting started and was able to drive the bus himself, allowing Jarmusch to get a broader amount of options in shooting the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mike and Molly
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Country: Portraits of an American Sound

One More Time with Feeling


Nick Cave in his element.

Nick Cave in his element.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Picturehouse) Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Susie Bick, Thomas Wydler, Earl Cave, Else Torp, Martyn Casey, Jim Sclavunos, George Vjestica. Directed by Andrew Dominik

 

Nick Cave is one of those artists who people either never heard of or fall in love with. His sonorous voice isn’t the kind you associate with pop music and while his songs are beautiful and haunting, they generally have a darkness to them that some find uncomfortable. It isn’t an accident that one of his best albums is entitled Murder Ballads.

Cave had begun the recording of his sixteenth album with his band the Bad Seeds when tragedy struck; his 15-year-old son Arthur accidentally fell off a cliff near his Brighton home and died of the injuries he sustained. Cave and his wife Susie Bick were devastated as you can imagine and work on the album stopped for a time.

Now the songs of the album are infused with the presence of the son who is gone. The lyrics are dark and bitter, like a coffee infused with burnt chicory. The tragedy becomes the elephant in the room and in order to keep from answering endless questions about it, Cave enlisted Dominik, whose film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was scored by Cave and his usual partner-in-crime Warren Ellis.

Most of the film is in black and white (there are a couple of color sequences, one involving Cave’s surviving son Earl and a sequence in which Danish soprano Else Torp lends her voice to one of the songs on the album) and that seems perfect for the somber situation, and for Cave’s catalog in general. That’s not to say that this is all ashes and sackcloth however; there is some teasing that goes on, particularly from Ellis who claims that Cave’s hair “never looked better.”

The music is at the center of the film and quite frankly, I was motivated to buy Skeleton Tree almost immediately after arriving home (thank you, eMusic) and I haven’t regretted it since. The music is haunting and beautiful and sad – sad can be intensely beautiful – and will stick with you for a long while. I’m still listening to the tracks from the album in almost constant rotation.

Speaking of constant rotation, one of the annoying things about the movie is that for nearly every song Dominik has his camera circling on a dolly around the piano Cave is playing or the microphone Cave is singing into. There are some lighting effects that go with some of the songs but Dominik could have changed things up a little more from song to song. Frankly I ended up closing my eyes and just letting Cave’s voice wash over me for most of it and maybe that’s the intent. Cave’s voice is raw and real; reading the lyrics on the page are fine and they reveal his anguish and grief, but to really get the truth of his pain one must hear his voice. There are few singers who are as emotionally communicative as Cave is.

Another issue I have with the film is the interviews with Cave, particularly early on in the movie. Often Dominik (I assume it is Dominik doing the interviewing; it could be someone else) interrupts Cave and finishes his sentences. Sometimes Cave says “Yeah, right” but other times he says “No, not really…” as Dominik tries to express what Cave is feeling. A cardinal rule of interviewing on-camera is to let the subject do as much of the talking as possible; you never interrupt them nor put words in their mouth. Your function is to ask a few questions and the occasional follow-up but to keep your mouth shut as much as possible, particularly when you have someone like Cave who is intelligent and thoughtful. I would have preferred to hear more of Cave and less of Dominik.

Dominik is, however, a gifted visual director and some of the images here are amazing and poignant, particularly as the film goes on. Dominik chooses not to say anything specific about the tragedy that clearly haunts Cave so if you were initially unaware of his son’s passing you may end up getting snippets of some sort of unexpressed trauma but it isn’t until the last 20 minutes or so of the movie that Cave and his wife speak openly about the death of their son and they never tell you specifically what happened. The film’s final image – of the cliff where Arthur Cave spent his final moments – is a haunting one and will stay with you nearly as much as the music that precedes it.

This does make a fine companion piece to the album although I don’t know how much it is going to enhance the listening experience of sitting down in a nice quiet place, turning on the headphones and letting the music of the Bad Seeds and Cave’s expressive voice wash over you. If Dominick’s direction had been less intrusive this easily could have been a contender for best movie of the year. As it is it will certainly merit a certain amount of contention for my top ten list, although likely the second half. Skeleton Tree is more likely to vie for my favorite album of 2016 however, and you might feel the same after seeing this and more importantly, hearing the album.

REASONS TO GO: The music is absolutely amazing. Cave is a thoughtful interview subject. A fascinating look at the creative process for what will be a landmark album. At times, the film is emotionally wrenching.
REASONS TO STAY: Dominik is too intrusive a director. The interviews are poorly conducted.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Other than a screening at the Venice Film Festival, the film debuted on September 8, the day before Skeleton Tree – the band’s sixteenth album – was released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Listening to Skeleton Tree in a nice quiet place.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Max Rose

Local Legends


Say gang, let's put on a show!

Say gang, let’s put on a show!

(2013) Comedy (Motern Media) Matt Farley, Sharon Scalzo, Elizabeth M. Peterson, Tom Scalzo, Kevin McGee, Charles Roxburgh, Matt D., Millhouse G., Chris Peterson, Rachel Farley, Ryan Desmarais, Jon Cross, Jim Farley. Directed by Matt Farley

There are people who consume music and films, people like me. Someone else writes the songs, records the tracks, works the camera, constructs the script and does the acting. I just listen and/or watch. Other people aren’t content to do that; they need to create. However, their vision may not necessarily be grand – at least by certain standards. They don’t need stardom. They do what they do because they love doing it.

Local Legends takes a quasi-documentary approach. Shot in glorious black and white in and around Manchester, New Hampshire, local artist Matt Farley shows us more or less what his life is like. While a goodly amount is fictionalized there’s also a bit of truth going on here as well – it’s really up to you to determine which is which.

Matt is a stand-up comedian/musician/filmmaker/actor/songwriter/entertainment guru. He does all these things himself essentially without help or guidance from anyone, or at least not a lot. He works nights at a care facility for the elderly, mostly sleeping his way through work and only rousing himself to change the diapers when one of his charges has an accident.

During the day he writes and records songs, a lot of them – at  the time of filming he had over 13,000 songs on iTunes (that part is true) under various band names (go to the movie’s website and they’ll point you to a whole lot of them) which are mostly just Matt. Out of college he was in a group called Moes Haven which was a more or less serious band but Matt noticed that the only songs that were selling on iTunes were the novelty songs so after years of unjustified obscurity he and bandmate Tom Scalzo (who plays himself here) called it a day and moved on.

Matt and his friend Soup (Peterson) play one-on-one basketball during the day, each pretending they’re an NBA legend (such as Reggie Miller v. Bill Laimbeer – it gets confusing when they decide to pit Karl Malone against Moses Malone) but Matt generally hangs out most of the day recording songs. Some of them are fairly complex but some can be as simple as Matt repeating a person’s name over and over again against a catchy tune, or Matt waxing poetic on the joys of regular bowel movements. He has recorded more CDs than you can shake a stick at – not that there’s any good reason for you to shake anything in the general direction of a compact disc.

In order to get the word out about his music, he has to resort to creative means of marketing. From time to time, he’ll leave free discs in various places around Manchester. While doing this one afternoon he comes across his friend Millhouse G., a local promoter, putting up flyers for a Manchester comedy fest that he’s running and Millhouse invites Matt to take part, enthusiastic that he’s secured a 1,500 seat venue. Matt of course is all in.

Matt also meets Abby (Sharon Scalzo) after a comedy show. She invites him to her apartment with the lure of a complete Billy Joel collection. Matt, whose romantic cluelessness is part of his local legend, agrees but is disappointed to find out that her idea of a complete Billy Joel collection means that she has all of his Greatest Hits albums. Abby is clearly interested in Matt but is in a relationship with a guy named Norm (which is always a bad idea; guys named Norm are notoriously bad boyfriends) that is on again and off again by the hour. The good-natured Matt puts up with her particularly since she’s headed to Boston in a short time to attend art school – she wants to design costumes for display only. The thought of someone actually wearing them in a play or performance turns her stomach.

Abby’s constant attempts to spend time with Matt begin to irritate him but he doesn’t know how to get rid of her politely. Also the comedy show is beginning to get scaled down – it finally ends up being put on in Millhouse’s basement – well, to be more accurate, the basement of Millhouse’s parents. In the audience is Genevieve (Pearson) who also seems to be interested in Matt – but this time he’s actually interested in her.

This is what I call a “backyard movie” – one literally shot in the area around the filmmaker’s home and with a production budget approximately equivalent to a used car (a comparison that Matt uses during the film). Most of the actors are friends and family – during the comedy show scene in Millhouse’s basement, that’s Matt’s mom who comes downstairs in her bathrobe to get the laundry from the washing machine and Matt’s dad is in the audience. Surprisingly, the movie looks pretty good if you don’t mind fairly standard camera angles  – there isn’t anything fancy about the way Local Legends is shot but the movie nonetheless looks appealing. Manchester looks like a pretty cool place to live, although my wife and I once drove through New Hampshire and were advised throughout that there were moose crossings. We never saw one moose while we were there and concluded that moose are mythical creatures like unicorns and centaurs, which was proven  wrong when we ventured to Alaska. Screw you, New Hampshire!

Anyway, what I really like about the movie is that the more I watched the more it grew on me, like having a warm favorite blanket wrapped around you on a cold day. I got the sense that hanging out with Matt would be a good way to spend your time; he’s got a self-deprecating sense of humor and is unfailingly polite and good-natured. In fact, he informs you that the phone number he posts during the film is his actual phone number and if you give him a call, he’ll actually chat with you – and this is also true. He’ll even write a song about you if you ask him nicely (“I’m shameless,” he says disingenuously when asked about it). .

You’re unlikely to find this in a local theater and chances are it won’t ever play your local film festival either. However, you are in luck; you can see it for free on YouTube. If you’re interested, the link is right here. Just click on the word “here”  – not that one, the one that’s blue or possibly some other color and is in boldface. Otherwise click on the picture above and that will take you to the production company’s website where you’ll also find the link.

It took me about 15 minutes to really fall for this film but fall for it I did. While it has a Woody Allen-esque quality (without the neuroses) it also reminded me a little bit of Seinfeld in that the movie really isn’t about anything; it’s just a slice of this guy’s life. And let me tell you this, judging on what I see here, I really wouldn’t mind living it.

REASONS TO GO: Charming and grows on you the more you watch. Subtle and low-key.

REASONS TO STAY: Black and white isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Those ADD sorts might start squirming after about 20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES:  This is actually pretty family-friendly, although the humor is geared more towards adults rather than kids. However, no violence, no foul language and no sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The open-mic stand-up performance that opens the movie was filmed at the weekly Laugh Free or Die show in Manchester. So far as we know, nobody died.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/13: no scores on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Annie Hall

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Last Night

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff


An aging cameraman can still appreciate the timeless beauty of a young Audrey Hepburn.

An aging cameraman can still appreciate the timeless beauty of a young Audrey Hepburn.

(2010) Documentary (Strand) Jack Cardiff, Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall, Kim Hunter, John Mills, Alan Parker, Thelma Schoonmaker, Freddie Francis, Rafaella de Laurentiis, Richard Fleischer, Peter Yates, Kathleen Byron, Orson Welles. Directed by Craig McCall

The golden age of Hollywood was marked by larger than life stars and beautifully photographed films in gorgeous black and white or later, in epic Technicolor. Part of the reason those movies looked so good were men like Jack Cardiff – not that there were many like him.

Cardiff has worked with some of the greatest names in Hollywood – from the stars (Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn) to the directors (Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, Michael Powell). He came out of the British cinema working with the director-writer team of Powell and Emeric Pressburger which was better known as “The Archers” and with them was responsible for such classics as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus (for which he won the Oscar) and A Matter of Life and Death.

He would go on to work on other movies including The African Queen, The Vikings, The Barefoot Contessa, War and Peace, The Prince and the Showgirl (the Laurence Olivier/Marilyn Monroe film chronicled in My Week With Marilyn), Death on the Nile, Ghost Story and Rambo: First Blood Part II. He was active until 2007 but would pass away in 2009 while this film was in post-production.

Cardiff was known for his expertise with the then-nascent Technicolor process. Many cinematographers, used to black and white, had trouble when it came to color. You would think not since we all see in color but the fact is that the use of color can be a tricky thing when it comes to art and cinema. Cardiff always knew how to use color both subtly and epically.

McCall utilizes both archival footage and recent interviews with Cardiff and some of the people he’s worked with over the years. The segments featuring Cardiff are the most fascinating; he’s got a lot of interesting stories and his home movies on the set feature the stars letting down their hair somewhat are fascinating.

We don’t get a lot of background about Cardiff’s personal life. In fact, none at all that I can remember. I would have appreciated a bit of insight into who he was personally but that’s not really what this film is about – it’s about his professional life. That’s why his profession is the title of the movie and comes before his name although it might have been more accurately subtitled The Work and Not So Much the Life of Jack Cardiff.

There are a few too many talking heads mostly all saying essentially the same things. I thought the movie could have done with more examples of Cardiff’s work and more of Cardiff himself and less of people saying what a legend he is. But the movie serves to remind us of how glorious that age was and how much modern cinema owes to Cardiff. It makes you want to run right out and rent a copy of Black Narcissus and that can’t be a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: A look back at one of the greatest and most influential cinematographers ever. A reminder of Hollywood’s glamour.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many talking heads. Tells us next to nothing about the man himself.

FAMILY VALUES: A few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cardiff is to date the only cinematographer to be honored with a special Oscar (in 2001).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some additional home movies Cardiff shot on the sets of his classic films as well as an examination of the three-strip Technicolor process that was one of his trademarks.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $20,840 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Black Death

The Spirit


 
 

The Spirit
Over the top? Not when you’re Samuel L. Jackson.

 

 

(2009) Superhero Action/Comedy (Lionsgate) Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Scarlett Johansson, Dan Lauria, Paz Vega, Jaimie King, Louis Lombardi, Stana Katic. Directed by Frank Miller

 

Frank Miller is one of the most honored and respected graphic novelists in the business. His The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most influential graphic novels in history, bringing on the current wave of dark-themed and gritty realism comics that seem to dominate these days.

 

One of his major influences is Will Eisner; hell, nearly everyone writing and drawing comics today can say that. The major industry awards are named after the guy; that should tell you something. One of Eisner’s most famous creations is The Spirit.

 

Denny Colt (Macht) is a police officer who was killed in the line of duty, but has been reborn as The Spirit (Macht), a masked crime fighter known for his red tie and his ability to fight without being killed. He lives in Central City, a dingy, dirty, corrupt place of shadows and alleys, swamps and skyscrapers. He protects the city with his blood and what’s left of his soul. What is there to protect it from? In a word, the Octopus (Jackson), a mad scientist who has the same abilities The Spirit has but who craves something more; immortality.

 

To that end, he is concocting a formula that utilizes some fairly uncommon ingredients, one of which is the Blood of Heracles…Hercules, to you and me. He and his artificially created (and uncommonly stupid) henchmen Logos, Pathos and Ethos (Lombardi all) and his incredibly smart and sexy right hand Silken Floss (Johansson) have torn up the city for the ingredients.

 

However, he’s not the only one looking for immortality. International jewel thief Sand Saref (Mendes), the former love of the late Denny Colt, is also in town looking for the stuff and all hell is breaking loose. The Spirit has his hands full trying to keep the Octopus from achieving his end, while trying to protect his heart from being broken again by Serif.

 

Those who might remember Miller’s Sin City (which he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez) will know the style he employed here, a very noir-ish tone in both look and feel, with black and white and sepia that contrasts wildly with splashes of color; red tie, red lips, red blood. Miller’s graphic novels have been notable for their dark tones and gritty film noir-like style.

 

But this isn’t pure noir; there’s an element of camp to it that is reminiscent of the 1960s Batman, from the henchmen with their names on their shirts to the stylized fighting style. There are also the femme fatales, including the aforementioned Serif and Floss, as well as the assassin Plaster of Paris (Vega). There’s also the doctor, Ellen Dolan (Paulson) who is The Spirit’s love interest and of all the women here has the most personality.

 

But it is the Macht-Jackson show. They are the center of the story; Macht makes for a fine hero while Jackson chews on the scenery like George Lopez at an all-you-can-eat taqueria. Jackson seems to be having a ton of fun in a larger-than-life role. He pulls out all the stops, but never lets his performance overwhelm the part.

 

There is a questionable scene in which Jackson and Johansson are outfitted as Nazis; I’m not exactly sure why Miller went there, other than to add a Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish element to the movie, but it doesn’t work. Neither does Mendes as Saref. The role is meant to be sympathetic in the end, but quite frankly Mendes seems to be more successful when she is less soft. Certainly she’s beautiful and sexy, but in the end I felt she wasn’t quite right for the role.

 

The movie got savaged by critics upon release, while audiences were far more indifferent. Despite a ton of pre-release hype and high expectations given the director and the material, poor word-of-mouth doomed the movie. That is quite a shame, because in many ways the movie is much better than you might have heard it was, but you do have to be in the right frame of mind to really appreciate it. If you are looking for something on the campy side and not so much on the dark gritty side, you might find The Spirit to be some mighty fine entertainment. However, you should be warned that these elements might be a little bit at odds with most folks’ perception of Miller, whose works up to now haven’t had the kind of lighter side depicted here.

 

WHY RENT THIS: Very stylized and campy, generally in a good way. Macht is perfectly cast as the Spirit and Jackson delivers an over-the-top performance as the villain.

 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Mendes is terribly miscast and some of the campiness might be grating for those looking for a straight-up superhero movie.

 

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of stylized violence, a bit of sexuality (including some brief nudity) and while it’s pretty much okay for most teens, I’d think twice before letting the young kids see this. 

 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When it came time to shoot Paz Vega’s scene, her costume so distracted Miller that he yelled “Cut” instead of “Action!”  

 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the creator of the original comic, Will Eisner and his effect on the industry in general.  

 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood the movie broke even at best but most likely not.

 

FINAL RATING: 6/10

 

TOMORROW:  Waiting for “Superman”