Thursday, December 8, 2016

5 things to love about The Spirit (2008)

What’s it about:
Frank Miller adapts Will Eisner’s classic 1940s comic book hero. Gabriel Macht plays The Spirit (aka Denny Colt), a masked avenger who helps out the police to protect his beloved Central City. One night, he interrupts his arch-enemy The Octopus (Samuel L Jackson) who is buying a mysterious box from a thief called Sand Serif. Of course, Sand is a childhood friend of Denny's who turned to crime, can The Spirit turn her back to being good, and will he be able to stop The Octopus’ master plan?This film was pretty poorly received at the time but I kind of enjoyed catching up with it recently. 

5 things to love:
1. The film uses a similar stylised black and white look that Robert Rodriguez employed on Sin City (which Frank Miller co-directed). It’s a gorgeous look and really enhances the film. Don’t expect any of the same crazy levels of violence as Sin City though this is very PG-13.

2. The film has a goofy screwball sense of humour. I think this put a lot of people off but I found it refreshing. Audiences don’t like seeing superhero be goofy. The Spirit goes back and forth between seriousness and silliness. At one point the Spirit is hanging off a building by his coat when his trousers fall down exposing his boxer shorts. Think more 60s Batman than Nolan’s Batman.

3. Frank Miller’s comic book experience means that he sets up a lot of shots as if they are comic book panels. Very dynamic shot selection. One of my favourites was that often when the Spirit fights someone he punches them off screen and you see his shadow beating them up on the wall. The film also, I feel, is Miller trying to draw some larger themes about comic book heroes and villains and how one creates the other and then they proceed to fight each other in a never-ending battle.

4. The eye candy in this film is off the charts. Eva Mendes, in particular, as Sand Serif has never looked hotter. The part where she photocopies her ass is amazing.

5. It’s a very bold film and doesn’t try to go down the same routes as other superhero hero films. It’s a crazy, weird, strange story. And given how similar so many superhero movies have become it's refreshing to see something that goes off the rails.

1 thing it did need:
This film had a number of problems. The acting is so large and broad it makes the film feel cheap. I think the whole thing could have been remedied somewhat if there was a better actor in the lead. I thought Gabriel Macht did well but it really needed someone with star quality to take control of the material. Johnny Depp maybe?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

5 things to love about The 13th Warrior (1999)

What’s it about:
In the 900s an Arabian court poet, Ahmad ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas), is banished from Baghdad and sets out northwards. He meets up with and agrees to join a group of Vikings led by Buliwyf (as the titular 13th warrior) as they head out to protect a village that is being attacked by a vicious creature called the Wendol. Sound vaguely familiar? Yes, it’s basically the story of Beowulf told from an outsider's perspective. Based on the novel Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton, it tries to make a realistic origin for the fantastical tale.

5 things to love:
1. The reveal of the Wendol is fantastic. I won’t spoil it here but it’s a pretty good concept that works great visually. The first time you see the creature winding down the side of the mountain is awesome.

2. There’s a great central performance by Antonio Banderas playing Ahmad (one of the few positive Arabian character in a US film). The only downside is that the film can’t, by its nature, make him take the lead. Having him chronicle the adventure works perfectly in the book but it’s a little strange to have the protagonist be so sidelined in a film.

3. The film has great little bits of detail about certain Viking rituals which I’m sure are taken from Crichton’s novel. Crichton was always a stickler for filling his novels with as many facts as possible. One particularly interesting (though slightly unbelievable) bit is that initially Ahmad is speaking English (for the audience) and the Vikings are speaking un-subtitled Norwegian (I think) and then slowly, as Ahmad picks up their language, they start speaking English too.

4. The storming of the Wendol’s lair is a great set piece. The Viking group basically have to sneak into an elaborate cave system and abseil down a huge internal waterfall. It’s tense and very well directed by John McTiernan (and a little reminiscent of Predator which is never a bad thing).

5. Lastly, you’ve got to love that the film doesn’t shy away from some strong bloody violence and has some big, epic, practical sets. 1999 was a bit of watershed, most films this size would subsequently be made with CGI and be 12A rated (see The Mummy, also 1999).

1 thing it didn’t need:
The film suffered from some reshoots by Crichton rather than McTiernan which maybe(?) improved the film from its initial rough cut (I don’t know, it’s not available) but give the film a very disjointed feeling. You can especially tell that the ending was a hurried reshoot. It’s a shame because it spoils an otherwise solid film.