Tag Archives: Crime

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE SPIRIT (2008)

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DIRECTED BY: Frank Miller

FEATURING: Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Paulson, , Jaime King, Dan Lauria, Stana Katic

PLOT: When the villainous Octopus terrorizes Central City in pursuit of an ancient elixir that will give him godlike powers, The Spirit–heroic guardian of the city–is there to foil his plans.

Still from The Spirit (2008)

COMMENTS: In the opening scenes of The Spirit, the central character delivers a monologue about his mission as he vaults through the city, a black silhouette swinging and somersaulting off the tops of the buildings, with only a pair of titanium white-soled Chuck Taylors and a rippling vermilion necktie to distinguish him. Here is that monologue in full:

“My city. She’s always there for me. Every lonely night, she’s there for me. She’s not some tarted-up fraud, all dressed up like a piece of jailbait. No, she’s an old city, old and proud of her every pock and crack and wrinkle. She’s my sweetheart, my plaything. She doesn’t hide what she is, what she’s made of: sweat, muscle, blood of generations. She sleeps, after midnight and until dawn, only shadows move in the silence. (checks his watch) Damn, I’ve got no time for this. My city screams! She needs me. She is my love. She is my life. And I am her spirit.”

This is but the first of at least half-a-dozen similar monologues scattered throughout the film, because writer/director Frank Miller wants to emulate the narration boxes found in the comic books that are his primary medium. This is not an unworthy goal, but the fact is that those words play better on the page than they do said aloud during a moment of action. And while it’s certainly possible that there’s an actor out there who could pull off reciting dialogue like this, it poses a tremendous challenge, considering that the prose might be best described as “too purple for Prince.” 

Suffice to say, future “Suit” Gabriel Macht is not the person to overcome the limitations of such dialogue. His every effort is labored, trying and failing to weave in elements as disparate as Superman’s moral purity, Batman’s righteous vengeance, Philip Marlowe’s world-weariness, and even a little bit of Han Solo’s roguish charm. But in fairness, with so many styles to play, Macht has the hardest job. The well-pedigreed performers surrounding him only have one style to ape, although they must contend with the same stilted dialogue. Consider Samuel L. Jackson, who is given leave to go full maniacal-laughter bad guy but isn’t given anything to be particularly evil about. (There’s some lip service paid to something about blood found on the Golden Fleece conferring godhood, but far more time is lavished on his role in The Spirit’s origin story, which honestly makes very little sense.) Miller’s screenplay provides little context for the rivalry between Spirit and Octopus, so we’re mainly riding on our goodwill toward Jackson doing his thing, lending some comedy to what would otherwise be gratuitously baroque.   

This problem is particularly acute for the ensemble of actresses whom Miller prizes for their beauty, and gives just enough characterization to get them off his back. Paulson is the stalwart and sexless love interest, Mendes is voluptuous and obsessed with jewels (the genuinely charming Seychelle Gabriel fares better as Mendes’ teenaged past), Vega is all tease and violence, and Katic provides gum-smacking 40s patois. And then there’s Johansson, whose presence here is baffling. She hints at a mercenary soul in a world of true believers, but mainly seems to be here exclusively so Miller can clothe her and Jackson in Nazi uniforms for no reason whatsoever. Characters don’t just lack an arc; they barely even bend.

Miller seems to have drawn the wrong conclusions from his earlier outing, Sin City, where co-director Robert Rodriguez adhered religiously to the stark contrasts and sparse coloring of Miller’s original book. Miller holds no such reverence for his forebears, trading the vibrant and varied colors of Will Eisner for his own tinted monochrome and applying the same grittification that made his name in the Batman re-think “The Dark Knight Returns.” It feels like a bad match. The result is sometimes visually intriguing, but never compelling as a story.

The Spirit is finally a vanity project, Miller using his new-found access to moviemaking as a platform for his style. But while he bends film to his needs, he hasn’t let the demands of the medium bend him at all. So determined to make a movie look like one of his comic books, he’s made one where the story is convoluted, the characters are two-dimensional, the comedy is leaden, and the dialogue is obtuse. I hate to break it to him, but I have no time for this. My city screams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Frank Miller’s The Spirit is far more than just merely bad. Like the most infamous movie disaster of all, Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space, it veers wildly from stunning weirdness to unintentional hilarity, interspersed with frequent stretches of insufferable boredom. But what truly lands The Spirit among the rarified company of true cinematic crimes against humanity is that it is the insane and unhinged product of a uniquely obsessed auteur mind… The Octopus is a mad scientist conducting all sorts of medical atrocities in the name of mutating himself to godlike powers. He deems one of his misfired experiments as ‘just plain damn weird,’ a phrase apropos of the movie itself.” – Chad Ossman, Thinking Out Loud

(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

WEIRD VIEW CREW: THE ITEM (1999)

In The Item, the chick, the fat guy, the mustache guy, and Dan Clark pick up a mysterious briefcase in a scenario that was intended to evoke Pulp Fiction as made by . The result, instead, is a 2.7 IMDb rating. Pete soldiers on gamely, with some herbal assistance.

(This movie was nominated for review by Val Santos. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: FOLLOWING (1998)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan 

FEATURING: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell, John Nolan

PLOT: Attempting to jump start his imagination by following random people through the city, an unemployed writer finds himself enlisted in assisting petty thefts, but soon becomes embroiled in a  more dangerous series of crimes.

Still from Following (1998)

COMMENTS: For those caught up in Barbenheimer fever, the pairing of a candy-colored meta-explosion of product placement with a sober biography of the man who shepherded the atomic bomb into existence is enjoyable precisely because it seems a strange alignment, a karmic fusion of two wildly opposed mindsets in one pop culture moment. But it’s not so crazy when you remember one thing about Oppenheimer’s auteur: Christopher Nolan is a populist. His subjects and their treatments may be high and mighty, but he really (I mean really) just wants to get butts in seats and eyes on the screen. Yes, his subjects can turn on dense physics or mind-bending twists, but it’s fair to assume that if he could have filmed Barbie with fractured narratives and looming existential dread while casting Cillian Murphy or Tom Hardy in the lead, he’d have taken the gig.

Proof of that conjecture lies in Nolan’s debut feature, which came out two years before his breakthrough with Memento. The story itself is a simple but impressively taut thriller about a foolish young man who makes bad choices, although none of us know just how bad until the very end. With grainy black-and-white photography and a core triangle of characters who have varying degrees of commitment to moral justice, it’s got all the trappings of a classic noir. The film is unusually economical for Nolan, clocking in at an hour and ten minutes, but still has room for some crackling dialogue, especially as small-time burglar-cum-criminal mastermind Cobb describes the psychology of his victims. (The small cast is solid if not flashy, with special praise for the haughty imperiousness Alex Haw embodies invests in Cobb.) There are a couple of familiar Nolan shortcomings. Only one character in the film gets a proper name, and it’s telling that even in a film essentially populated by only three characters, the female lead (Russell’s icy Blonde) is easily the least fleshed out. But all-in-all, Following succeeds because it knows what it is and sticks to that. It just works.

Of course, even this early in his career, Nolan’s gotta Nolan. We get the tale in a jumbled order that keeps us from seeing the ultimate fate of The Young Man (he calls himself Bill, but the generic credit suggests this may be a falsehood) until it’s too late. It’s not just showing off; Nolan knows that a straight linear cut of the film would make The Young Man’s arc obvious, even inevitable. By moving back and forth in the timeline, the audience can better occupy the mindset of the protagonist, making it more personal when the end comes. And Nolan is unusually interested in helping the audience navigate the plot. A simple visual code–Theobald appears in the three phases of his timeline as either scruffy, spiffy, or scarred and beaten–ensures that even as the story jumps backward and forward in time, we can keep our bearings. 

Aside from its twisty structure, Following isn’t especially weird. But there is a strange side effect of watching it retrospectively; when compared with all that has come after, Nolan’s efforts in this first film seem small. Considering the ambitious size of his Batman trilogy or his determination to destroy linear time as we know it–moving backwards through it in Memento, looping it in Interstellar, mirroring it in Tenet, nesting it in Inception, or unspooling it at varying speeds in Dunkirk–Nolan’s gambit here feels almost quaint. That’s the delicious irony in the relative obscurity of Christopher Nolan’s debut feature. In assessing the filmmaker’s career as a whole, it is inevitably a film that you have to go back into the catalog to find, that you can only experience while already in possession of the knowledge of the career to come. In other words, it is impossible to consider his output in a linear fashion. The Christopher Nolan timeline is unavoidably fractured. Which one imagines is exactly how he likes it.

Incidentally, if you want to keep the Barbenheimer vibe going, might I suggest that Following could be part of another great Barbie-Nolan double feature? After all, girl’s got some gritty indie film credits in her past, too. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Already in ‘Following’ you see Nolan’s affinity for convoluted chronological structure and the final twist, in which all the jigsaw plot pieces snap into place and you finally see the whole picture (along with the main character). You may wonder just how necessary/integral they are, but they help make the film fun to watch, even if they don’t necessarily add up to a whole lot.”–Jim Emerson, RogerEbert.com

(This movie was nominated for review by Mick Bornson, who called it “pretty weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: A WOMAN’S FACE (1941)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Joan Crawford, , , Osa Massen

PLOT: Anna Holm stands accused of murder; during the course of her trial, the court learns of her unhappy past as a woman with a hideous facial scar that has led her into committing crimes against the populace that scorns her.

Still from A Woman's Face (1941)

COMMENTS: Anyone who thinks of Joan Crawford today is inclined to view her as a monster. A series of unfortunate films that concluded her career, including as Strait-Jacket, Berserk and Trog, could be to blame. It might be because of her role in the American Guignol What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and her rivalry with , mythologized in “Feud: Bette and Joan.” But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s mostly Mommie Dearest. Daughter Christina’s nightmare account of her upbringing and Faye Dunaway’s subsequent portrayal of Crawford as a legendarily campy villain cemented her reputation as an icy devil with the veneer of Disney’s Evil Queen.

This makes watching A Woman’s Face a peculiar proposition, because it acts as a kind of retroactive rebuttal to all the gossip and the negative imagery. Crawford’s put-upon heroine knows what you think of her (one poster for the film blares, “They called her a scarfaced she-devil!”), and she would only be too happy to play the part, if only her soul wasn’t so pure and broken.

A Woman’s Face (based on a Swedish film starring Ingrid Bergman, which itself was adapted from a French play) is at its core an examination of what makes someone do bad things. This film’s argument is that Anna isn’t bad, she’s just drawn that way. Her disfigurement at a young age has provided her with a life of rejection and derision, and she instinctively responds in kind. It’s no wonder that she immediately melts for Veidt simply for doing her the courtesy of not recoiling at the sight of her. And most of the people we meet early on seem to deserve her scorn, particularly the duplicitous Massen, upon whom Crawford vents her anger in a thrilling display of violence.

Unfortunately, this premise means that, once Crawford’s visage is restored thanks to Douglas’ ministrations, the machinations required to push her into a far more reprehensible crime feel extremely forced. Crawford’s heart is never really in the murderous scheme pressed upon her, especially after she meets the precocious moppet who is to be her victim. (It’s a genuinely heartbreaking moment when the kid displays a typical example of youthful insensitivity, and she reaches instinctively to cover her repaired face.) Veidt, meanwhile, is entertainingly evil but not actually that persuasive, an issue director Cukor would resolve more effectively four years later in Gaslight. So you just have to take it on faith that she might do this awful deed, even though there’s nothing to outwardly indicate this. Further examples of the film not playing fair with the audience: witnesses are interrogated in an order designed for maximum delay and misdirection (in what universe does the defendant take the stand in the middle of the trial?), and a decisive piece of evidence is withheld until late in the third act and further hidden from the film’s characters until the closing minutes. 

A lot of this is silly carping on my part, because this is classic melodrama, pure and simple. The Phantom of the Opera-esque scar lends a veneer of strangeness to the formula (as does an amusingly odd Swedish folk dance that takes up a surprising amount of screen time), but the real centerpiece is Crawford deftly playing to both extremes of her reputation. Perhaps only she would be strong enough to wield a gun in the film’s climax while also weak enough to lash out at the perceived manipulations of everyone around her. Joan Crawford knows you think she’s a monster, and she’s not ashamed to shed a tear over it, either.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

A Woman’s Face is magnificently daft, but the gorgeously photographed Crawford’s intense, persuasive star turn and Cukor’s attentive, crafted film-making work make it compelling.” – Derek Winnert, derekwinnert.com

OTHER LINK OF INTEREST: 

Six Degrees of Joan Crawford – Karina Longworth’s deservedly acclaimed Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This devoted a sextet of episodes to Crawford’s career and her position as “the quintessential female star of the 20th century.”

(This movie was nominated for review by s, who calls it “pretty startling for a 1940’s ‘women’s picture’” and says “(t)he third act is a real stunner.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CHANNEL 366: COPENHAGEN COWBOY (2023)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Angela Bundalovic, Andreas Lykke Jørgensen, Li Ii Zhang, Jason Hendil-Forssell

PLOT: Miu, an 18-year-old girl with mysterious powers, becomes involved in the Copenhagen crime scene after being sold to a pimp’s sister as a “lucky coin.”

Still from Copenhagen Cowboy, Season 1 (2023)
Copenhagen Cowboys. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2022

COMMENTS: If any Refnheads are somehow unaware of the quiet debut of six episodes of slow, stylized, depravity from Denmark, well… you’re about to be thrilled. Refn continues the style he’s honed through Drive (2011), Only God Forgives (2013), and The Neon Demon (2016): minimalist plot development spiked with bouts of brutal violence, glowing primary color lighting, and noirish criminality, adding a stronger-than-usual dose of stylish conceptual weirdness.

Angela Bundalovic, in a performance that can only be described as “restrained,” centers the movie in an inscrutable charisma. Rail-thin and clad in baggy clothes, Miu begins as an androgynous figure, opening with a scene where a gaggle of Eastern European women take snips off of her bowl haircut for luck. (It’s surprising to learn waifish Bundalovic is actually 27-years-old; she almost looks too young to be Miu’s professed 18.) Later attempts to sexualize Miu will fail; she’s neither feminine nor masculine, but (perhaps literally) alien. Standing quietly and staring with an unreadable expression is her signature move. Circumstances will force her hand and, through clever editing and choreography, reveal her to be a deadly hand-to-hand fighter. That it’s believable that this stick of a chick could pulverize manly men in single combat is a testament to the quiet confidence she exudes. By the time a corrupt criminal lawyer who knew her from before she was sold to the brothel encounters her again, we aren’t surprised that his face betrays more than a tinge of fear. Miu is one badass lady, and season one does not approach the limits of whatever power she possesses.

“Copenhagen Cowboy” languorously makes its way through various red-and-blue-neon-lit chambers, as Miu migrates from the hellish brothel to a Chinese restaurant, with a stopover at a pig farm. The series indirectly explores immigrant experience in the EU, as nearly all the main characters, whether Eastern European or Asian, are undocumented and driven into a common underground criminal counterculture. As the series goes on, a worthy adversary for Miu emerges: a decadent, lily-white, aristocratic moneyed family. They have closets full of perversions: ritual sadism, a phallic sex cult, and strong hints of incest. Are they the indigenous Danish elite, feeding on the underclass? Perhaps, but it turns out that they, like Miu, may be alien to this world, products of witchcraft—or worse. That sounds like a lot of plot development—and we haven’t even mentioned the Chinese gang, or Miu’s brief stint as a drug dealer—but everything spreads sparely across the series’ six-hour runtime, with reveals coming in drips. And fear not, there are plenty of weird adornments to Refn’s moody backgrounds: a man who only communicates in pig squeals, a dead sister resurrected, Miu’s face flowerized.

Probably the biggest issue with the series is its incomplete nature. Episode 6, “The Heavens Will Fall,” hints at answers to Miu’s origin while leaving the actual nature of her newest occult antagonist up in the air. Refn has some pull with a small audience, and brings Netflix a niche prestige they enjoy, but his following isn’t big enough to make a second season a sure bet (about two-thirds of the streamer’s series get picked up for round two, with prospects dropping significantly for a third go). Ending “Copenhagen” on what is, by Refn standards, a cliffhanger is a gamble. It would be disappointing if we didn’t get to see where Miu’s winding path takes her next.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…so weird, it’s shocking Netflix took a risk on it… fans of the unpredictable, the bizarre, and the deviant will be delighted to see the streamer investing so heavily in the auteur’s flights of phantasmagoric fancy.”–Nick Schager, The Daily Beast (contemporaneous)

(This series was nominated for review by Parmesan74 (letterboxd). Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)