Friday, December 26, 2008

The Spirit of Christmas is Dead

Like many folks yesterday I went to the movie theater to escape from the "festivities" occurring at my household. My choice of cinema was rather obvious as THE SPIRIT premiered yesterday at motion picture theaters nationwide.

So, wrapping up warmly to gird myself against the rain, I trotted over to the Arclight Cinemas to catch the 2pm show. Lines were long and it gave me time to dry off. I immediately noticed that The Spirit was only showing in one theater in this multiplex... hmmm. Interesting.

The Spirit is based on the 1940's Sunday Comic insert character created by the great Will Eisner. Every Sunday kids of all ages were treated to a 16 page comic book that came with their newspaper. This was a bonus to all of the regular strips that were in the paper, and was known for debuting not only The Spirit but Lady Luck and Mr. Mystic.

At first Eisner crafted the Spirit stories along a very familiar path to those of us who have read the "golden age" material of the period. Eisner was in his 20's at the time and was still new to the whole idea of telling a story in graphic form. While in the middle of his Spirit run, Eisner enlisted in the Army (it was WW2) and was posted to the Signal Corps to draw material for the Army Communications division.

While in the service, Eisner created one page gag cartoons, combat illustrations, brochures on the assembly of weapons and equipment, posters, and in a smart move for its time comic book styled training manuals for all sorts of very technical information allowing soldiers to easily learn very complicated systems faster with greater retention (because he made it interesting).

In other words, Eisner learned how to tell a story using the medium of comics.

After the war, Eisner came back to The Spirit a changed man. His layouts were more dynamic, his storytelling truer and sharper than ever before. The boy who went to war grew up, became a man and realized he had something to say. To say The Spirit stories post-WW2 reflected this would be an understatement. Eisner plowed beyond the surface soil of his characters to dig into their bedrock applying cinematic techniques and new graphic design philosophies to reach that bedrock.

And over 60 + years later, with dozens of graphic novels and volumes of Spirit stories by Eisner available, Frank Miller (SIN CITY, DAREDEVIL, RONIN, 300) is given the go ahead to write and direct a Spirit movie based on the work of his mentor.

But unfortunately we get this.

I feel like a TSA agent who's looking at a trainwreck in the middle of a neighborhood: Where the hell do I start?

Visually (Design, Editing, Directing):

The Spirit has some moments of inspiration and captures/creates some interesting moments onscreen. Unfortunately, some of those moments are muddied by what I'll call "Miller-isms" that he has borrowed from SIN CITY ( the negative effect for one). Editing is jumpy at times, cutting back in time to see elements that weren't revealed before. While I understand the concept it comes off as choppy here instead of integrated into an attempt to tell the story in a new way. Specifically the first appearance of Sand Saref and the Octopus.


At times over-the-top (Sam Jackson) and at times wooden as a plug nickel(Eva Mendez) . The actors here are clearly at a loss as to how to play their scenes and unfortunately it shows not only in their movement but in the god-awful dialog they plow through. It's as if they know they have to say these words, but don't know how so they speed-speak through the scene to try and give it some liveliness or doesn't deserve.

Eva Mendez, Scarlett Johanssen, Sarah Paulson, et al deserve better material than this. Sam Jackson -- you just come off as creepy. Not the character of The Octopus - you.

The Screenplay:

Disjointed and awkward, this is a story that has several threads going on, but they aren't woven together in a way to create a story worth watching. Combine that with the Looney-toons-esque action and design and you have a mishmash of elements that never gel, never illuminate, never go beyond the superficial. The Voice-over (as well as the Lorelei sequences) could and should be dropped completely to make a more cohesive and engaging story. Unfortunately we have this smoky voice telling us things we already know or can deduce.

There is a movie in here somewhere (or at least a better one) and I can't wait until some entrepreneurial sort gets the footage and reworks it to post online. Miller, Uslan and Del Prete need to go to movie jail for awhile. There is now way I would allow Miller anywhere near Buck Rogers without a) a screenplay by someone else, b) directing lessons and c) acting lessons so he can relate to actors and bring out of them the performances required to make the story true and actually have a soul (point of view).

The Spirit and Will Eisner deserves better.

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