In Theaters: Standing Up for the Underdog

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    Forget what other critics are saying–I’m here to tell you that Will Smith’s Seven Pounds and Frank Miller’s The Spirit are worth your time…provided you’re in the mood for something  off the beaten path.

    Seven Pounds
    Directed by Gabriele Muccino
    Starring Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Michael Ealy

    The Spirit
    Directed by Frank Miller
    Starring Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson

    Rating for Both: ***

    The reviews are in and it looks like both Will Smith and Frank Miller will be receiving lots of snide remarks, cutting insults and one-fingered salutes in their holiday stockings.  Super-nova sized celebrities in their respective industries (movies and comic books) both men are fronting two of the holiday season’s most high-profile releases.  Smith is the star and producer of the shrouded-in-secrecy drama Seven Pounds, which arrives in theaters today, while Miller wrote, directed and has a brief cameo in 2008′s final superhero flick, The Spirit, opening on Christmas Day.  Here’s just a smattering of the terrible notices that have greeted both films:

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    “[Seven Pounds] may be among the most transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made.” –A.O. Scott, The New York Times

    “The only mystery [in Seven Pounds] is how many people are actually going to pay good money to watch this preposterous romantic melodrama.”—Lou Lumenick, New York Post

    “Frank Miller’s solo writing-directing debut plunges into a watery grave early on and spends roughly the next 100 minutes gasping for air.”—Justin Chang, Variety

    “Fans of Sin City and 300 will populate theaters for the film’s opening, but box-office will fall quickly. The film’s campiness might then pull in a different sort of aficionados—those who celebrate films such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”—Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter

    Yikes.  Obviously the tide of popular critical opinion is against Smith and Miller, but I’m here to offer an alternate perspective on both of their films.  Are either Seven Pounds or The Spirit contemporary classics?  Of course not.  In fact, I don’t necessarily know that I’d even call them good movies.  But they are fascinating, ambitious and, yes, deeply flawed, attempts to defy genre conventions and audience expectations.  Miller and Smith could easily have churned out straight genre exercises, but instead they’ve delivered films that take some bold artistic risks.  And, to me at least, that seems like something that deserves closer inspection rather than instant dismissal.

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    Let’s start with Seven Pounds, if only because that’s the half of this motley duo that has a chance of succeeding with moviegoers after being rejected by critics.  Sony has begged reviewers not to reveal too many details about the plot and I agree that the film is more effective the less you know about it going in.  Still, I’d be derelict in my duty if I didn’t offer up at least a thumbnail sketch of what to expect, so here goes: after suffering a horrific tragedy sometime in his past, Ben Thomas (Smith) attempts to atone for his sins by improving the lives of seven strangers, including Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson) a blind phone salesman for a mail-order meat business and Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), a beautiful woman with a failing heart.  His exact intentions towards these folks are deliberately obscured by an elliptical editing style, which jumps around in time and keeps key details under wraps until the film’s final 15 minutes.  But all the pieces of this puzzle do eventually fit together in a climax that I can guarantee you won’t see coming.  Don’t be surprised to find yourself gaping open-mouthed at the screen experiencing an odd combination of shock, horror and amusement.

    To say that Seven Pounds is an odd film is an understatement—it’s often downright bizarre.  What’s even crazier is that the damned thing kinda sorta works, at least on an emotional level if not an intellectual one.  Credit for this has to go Smith and Dawson, who wholeheartedly commit to this material and give audiences a central relationship to hang onto even as the story twists and turns on itself.  Seven Pounds was directed by Gabriele Muccino, who previously guided his star to an Oscar nomination for 2006′s The Pursuit of Happyness.  As in that film, he knows how to goad Smith into letting go of some of his typical Big Willie tics and embody a character entirely unlike his offscreen persona.  Ben Thomas may just be the most unlikable person the actor has ever been asked to play and Smith rises to the occasion.  Within the first five minutes, for example, we see him berating Harrelson on the phone and then physically assaulting a retirement home doctor.  To be honest, the film’s slippery chronology renders a lot of these early scenes baffling.  Who the heck is this guy anyway and why is he such an asshole?

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    As the film continues and Smith’s motivations snap into focus though, his nuanced performance becomes easier to appreciate.  Dawson also overcomes a rocky start to go on and hit emotional notes we haven’t seen from her before.  The romance that develops between Ben and Emily is more than a little absurd—not to mention creepy once it becomes clear where the story is going—but the actors sell it.  While I can’t defend some of Seven Pound‘s excesses (such as the scene that reveals Smith’s self-imposed fate, which is easily the most insane moment I’ve seen in theaters all year), it’s far from one of the most “crazily awful motion pictures ever made.”  I’ve been wrong on these kinds of predictions before, but part of me feels that audiences will respond to this film in a way reviewers haven’t.

    The Spirit is a whole other breed of underdog.  This is a film I expect a small group of critics and comic book fans to respect—if not exactly love—while the general public throws up their hands and wonders what the hell they’re watching.  The important thing to know about the film going in is that it’s a 21st century Frank Miller production through and through.  Casual comic book readers and fans of the movie versions of previous Miller books like 300 and Sin City probably won’t know what this means, but those people that have picked up the writer/artist/professional provocateur’s current work will understand exactly what I’m talking about.  The most accurate way I can describe The Spirit is that it is the cinematic equivalent of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the hotly debated semi-sequel to Miller’s groundbreaking ’80s mini-series The Dark Knight Returns.  Like that book, the film regularly vacillates between parody and seriousness.  Half the time you’re not sure what the author is trying to achieve and the other half you’re surprised to find yourself admiring his technique.

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    The best thing about The Spirit is that it was directed by Miller.  We’ve seen dozens of comic-book films recently, but this is the first one to be directed by an actual comics artist and the difference is apparent right away.  Unlike Robert Rodriguez, who essentially photocopied Miller’s Sin City panels for his overpraised movie version, you can see Miller “drawing” with the camera here, particularly if you’re familiar with his distinctive style.  Watching the film is like reading one of his comic books, from the framing of shots to the rhythm of the editing to the beautiful backgrounds that threaten divert your eye away from the action during certain scenes.  Along with Speed Racer, The Spirit is one of the boldest visual experiments to be released by a major studio in 2008.

    Unfortunately, the worst thing about The Spirit is that it was also written by Miller, who hasn’t penned a script worth a damn since Batman: Year One.  (Okay, I may give you the first few Sin City volumes, but nothing past That Yellow Bastard.)  As with much of his recent output, the film has no story to speak of and the tone is all over the place.  It’s one thing to write this sort of stuff for hand-drawn characters; it should be a crime to make flesh and blood actors deliver lines like “You’re in love with every woman you meet Mr. Spirit” and “Somebody find me a tie—I don’t care what kind, but by God, it had better be red” with a straight face.  Miller may think he’s poking fun at traditional superhero tropes as he does in his comic books, but his sense of humor falls completely flat when transferred to the big screen.  It’s also worth pointing out that, as written, this version of The Spirit has nothing to do with Will Eisner’s ’40s-era creation.  Instead, Miller is using Eisner’s work to explore his own past; his Spirit movie quotes everything from The Dark Knight Returns, to Ronin to his classic run on Marvel’s Daredevil title.

    Still, as much as I rolled my eyes at Miller’s tone-deaf script, I have to admit that the film itself never bored me.  Its visual beauty and sheer strangeness held my attention throughout; I also can’t help but admire Miller’s passionate commitment to his peculiar vision.  For better or worse, you can feel his fingerprints all over the movie.  Honestly I feel a little sorry for Lionsgate, the studio tasked with selling this film to a mainstream audience.  When they hired Miller to make the movie, they probably thought they’d be getting Sin City 2 or 300 More Spartans.  Instead, they were handed a piece of experimental pop art in comic-book movie clothing.  If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, buy a ticket to The Spirit on Christmas Day.  Frank Miller will thank you and, more importantly, you’ll likely have the theater to yourself.

    Verdict: See Them

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