The Spirit (dir: Frank Miller)
Will Eisner and Frank Miller may be my two favorite comic book creators of all time. Both of them pushed the state of the art of what Will Eisner called graphic storytelling, both of them told stories with resonance outside the superhero genre, and both of them embraced and celebrated the unique graphic possibilities of sequential storytelling, the very elements of the medium that made it so different from literature and movies. Miller revered Eisner, knew him, was his friend. One might think that Miller, a comics creator turned film director, would be the perfect director to bring Eisner’s signature series, The Spirit, to the screen. One would be wrong.
Eisner’s Spirit was a boy scout of two-fisted crimefighter, sort of like The Batman with a sense of humor and a self-effacing quality. And while he was resilient, he was definitely mortal. In Miller’s hands, the self-deprecating, decidedly human hero has become superhuman and the story an odyssey to discover his origins, which are somehow tied in with supervillain The Octopus (an off-the-hook Samuel L. Jackson, more Grade A ham than Octopus). The visual milieu is strictly forties, from cars to fashions to city street architecture, with splashes of the modern world (The Spirit has a cell phone). The graphic style recalls the monochrome palette of Sin City, with a color scheme dialed down to only hints of fleshtones and key visual indicators – like his red tie – painted bright to jump out from the screen. His court shoes are glow-in-the-dark white, as is the blood most of the time. It’s striking, but distracting.
Miller has a better understanding of the moving cinematic image here than he showed in Sin City, which was practically a series of panels edited together, but he’s still more a static visualist than a director of fluid images. He still tends to think of the screen as a panel in which things happen, rather than a fluid portal where every element of the shot – not simply the framing and the angle and action within but scale, movement, speed, stillness, duration – contributes to the meaning. His camera serves the composition, not the movement or the human drama. It’s a film more designed than directed.
[Gabriel] Macht, unfortunately, hasn’t the presence or charisma to hold the center of the film, not with Jackson playing the Octopus as pure ham and femmes fatale Eva Mendes (who looks like fantasy pin-up drawn right into the film) and Paz Vega (with a wobbly French accent and a harem girl bikini) vamping with abandon. Louis Lombardi is pure slapstick as the cloned henchman army, an almost inexhaustible supply of grinning idiots more at risk from the exasperated Octopus than the Spirit.
They look like they’re having a great time goofing through the crazed set pieces (what’s with the Nazi regalia?) and that fun often is infectious, if rarely focused. Miller is more interested in image than performance.
Marley & Me (dir: David Frankel)
To my surprise, I liked this adaptation of newspaper reporter-turned-columnist John Grogan’s memoir, starring Owen Wilson as John and Jennifer Aniston as his wife, also a reporter with an ambitious career plan. It’s ostensibly about their life with Marley, the puppy that they adopt early in their marriage, but it’s really about marriage and career and family and the way that life takes you to destinations that weren’t originally on your itinerary, but turn out to be exactly where you want to be.
It’s a slow starter and sluggish in parts, and a little madcap dog humor goes a long way, but that gives way in the second half as the kids grow up and Marley settles into the growing brood, becoming simply another element in the personality dynamic. David Frankel directs with a modesty and restraint that favors the people over the situations, and he really captures the chemistry of a family dog in the mix.
“I always saw myself as a reporter,” John tells his editor (Alan Arkin as the tough-love boss turned warmly sardonic father figure) as he reluctantly takes on the paper’s column and finds a new career. That pretty much defines the film.
I review the film for the Seattle P-I here.