Archive for August 1, 1997

Spawn

August 1, 1997

7E4L5RXOIEhTox5Qk9kw0MoInuSThe first of many times I came close to walking out of Spawn came right near the beginning. The good guy (actually not-so-good guy), a government assassin who wants to retire, has been set up by his diabolical boss. Just before the boss torches the hero, we get the following exchange:

Hero: “If you touch my wife, you’re a dead man.”
Bad guy: “You’re the dead man.”

What are we, in kindergarten? Now, I have nothing against shitheaded dialogue if it’s funny and delivered with a deadpan wink — if the filmmakers looked at the script and said, “This sucks; let’s have some fun with it.” A recent example is Jon Voight’s immortal line in Anaconda: “I am not the bad guy. I did not eat the captain.” But Spawn, a wannabe hybrid of Batman and Darkman and The Crow, is too grim and vengeful to laugh at itself. Besides, there’s too much at stake — all those ugly action figures to sell. What’s worse, its attempts at intentional humor (mostly fart jokes) fall utterly flat.

The aforementioned hero (Michael Jai White, who played Mike Tyson in an HBO biopic) goes to Hell and turns into Spawn, an undead avenger who would be nowhere without his snazzy computer-animated costume — it’s like the Batmobile with toes. His mission is to get revenge on his boss Dr. Evil — er, I mean Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen) — and his La Femme Nikita babe henchwoman Jessica Priest (Melinda Clarke, who in another life — and under another name, Mindy Clarke — was the zombie babe in Return of the Living Dead 3). He receives instructions from two opposing gurus: a waddling, loathsome little troll called Clown (John Leguizamo, trying too hard to steal the movie) and a wise, mysterious Ben Kenobi clone named Cogliostro (Nicol Williamson, distracting himself with thoughts of his paycheck).

The chief ineptitude of Spawn is that it doesn’t seem to know what audience it’s aiming at. Is it going after the kids who read the comic book and play with the toys? Is it for the 15-to-25 demographic who watched the “mature” Spawn animated series on HBO? If it’s meant to snare the uninitiated, I must say it failed to hook me. If it’s simply a fan’s movie, I’ve heard Spawn-heads yawn and recommend the film for its computer effects — not quite a ringing endorsement. In the end, Spawn is too juvenile for those who loved The Crow and too dark and violent for kids who would actually laugh at the fart jokes.

Spawn creator Todd McFarlane sat on this sacred turkey for a while before giving it to rookie director Mark Dippé, a former ILM wizard who worked on Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. Too bad he didn’t learn from those films, which seamlessly integrated their amazing computer effects with the live action. Here, Dippé brings the movie to a dead stop every few minutes so we can look at some more computer animation, which looks exactly like what it is: computer animation. The movie’s vision of Hell, too, is depressingly cheesy.

Spawn isn’t even a good demo tape for computer animation, and if you don’t enjoy the effects, you start squinting at your watch. That is, when you aren’t squinting at the screen. The movie is consistently underlit and edited with a Cuisinart — it’s worse than Batman and Robin. Will someone tell these hot-shot directors that we occasionally like to see what’s going on? Just a suggestion.

In the Company of Men

August 1, 1997

The first film by writer-director Neil LaBute, In the Company of Men has been both exalted as a brilliant satire and scorned as a shallow burp of white male indigestion posing as satire. It’s probably a little of both. But that very uncertainty is what makes it such an uneasy and unforgettable experience. Working with a $25,000 budget (shades of Clerks — this movie could be called Jerks) and stark, spartan sets, LaBute keeps his camera locked down as his two protagonists, Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy), discuss the perfidies of women. Woman — that most untrustworthy and enraging creature! Listening to these two, we realize that some of their specific complaints would sound inoffensive if they were women talking about these same flaws in men. But these two, and Chad in particular, go a step further. They’re bewildered; they can’t believe they’re living in a world in which the rules keep changing and men can’t even pretend to be men any more. Chad talks about women as if they were a virus spreading and infecting everything.

LaBute never stands outside the sensibilities of these men, never tells us that of course he understands that they’re sexist pigs. (For this reason, the film should infuriate the literal-minded.) Chad, a rancid corporate slickster, and Howard, a schlumpy doormat, decide to get revenge for the pain that women have caused them. Their plan is to single out a woman — preferably lonely and grateful for any male attention — and court her simultaneously and separately, then dump her and gloat over the psychic damage they’ve wrought. Chad stumbles onto the perfect target: Christine (Stacy Edwards), a shy, beautiful secretary who also happens to be completely deaf.

In the Company of Men is a static and hermetic exercise; the head games in the boardroom and bedroom are intended as a microcosm for the callous corporate ethos that has coarsened us all. The form is farcical — critics have likened it to Restoration comedy and to Les Liaisons Dangereuses in particular — yet the tone is realistic, and the actors give performances to match. Eckhart smoothly embodies every frat boy turned office wolf; Malloy’s portrait of a spiritually squashed and pathetic man becomes almost too painful to watch. And Edwards, in an enchanting and utterly convincing turn, makes us feel what this war between the sexes is costing the other side.

Is it a great movie? It falls just short, I think. LaBute, like Jules Feiffer in his nasty men-women satire Carnal Knowledge, goes too far in hollowing out the men. They are nothing but resentment and manipulation, which sometimes leaves a dramatic void. So it’s hard to be involved in their game on a basic human level. We watch from a distance. A great satire, like A Clockwork Orange, would seduce us into complicity with evil. LaBute’s film isn’t nasty enough. Still, this is an energizing and indelible debut. And it ends on an appropriately sour note; the silence of the final shot may echo in your mind for days afterward.