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Nashville Scene A World Without Heroes

From hell it came--and to hell it can go

By Noel Murray, Donna Bowman, and Jim Ridley

AUGUST 11, 1997:  A couple of weeks ago, in reviewing Batman and Robin, I wrote that the prejudices of Hollywood prevented good "comic book movies" from being made. That's not entirely true. Filmmakers have done the genre of superheroes right from time to time, usually when they're not trying. This summer's Face/Off, for example, has just the mixture of pathos and lunacy that marked the classic adventure comics of yore. Some good "real" superhero flicks have been made as well--including two in the summer of 1991, The Rocketeer and Darkman.

The artistic success of these latter two films can be traced to the approach of the filmmakers. Joe Johnston turned Dave Stevens' inherently retro Rocketeer comic into a paean to wholesome Americana, while Darkman creator Sam Raimi gave his somewhat campy original character a perverse splash of neurotic mania. The zippy adventure yarn and the heroic tragedy--the MPAA rated one film PG and the other R, but they could just as easily have labeled them DC and Marvel.

DC and Marvel, of course, are the two comic-book companies that have dominated the market since the '60s--the former with clean-cut heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman, the latter with conflicted, haunted heroes like Spider-Man and The Hulk. The two companies and their house styles monopolized sales until the early '90s, when a handful of popular Marvel artists broke off and formed their own company, Image. Image's most successful title, Todd McFarlane's Spawn, often outsells every other comic on the stands.

Now Image has made the leap into the mainstream popular consciousness with a feature-film version of Spawn, directed by Mark A.Z. Dipp and starring Michael Jai White as the titular hero. Does Image's house style make it onto the big screen as faithfully as its competitors' have? Lamentably, yes. Spawn the movie is every bit as violent, ugly, and stupid as Spawn the comic.

The story is ridiculous, even by superhero standards. Covert operative Al Simmons (White) is murdered by his boss (played by Martin Sheen) and sent to hell, where he makes a deal with Satan--he'll lead hell's army against earth and heaven if Satan will grant him passage back home so he can see his wife again. Meanwhile, another emissary of hell--an obese, flatulent midget named Clown (John Leguizamo)--is orchestrating a convoluted plan to get the reborn Simmons, now dubbed Spawn, to kill his old boss and inadvertently trigger the release of a deadly virus that will wipe out the earth's population.

Some questions must be asked. Why doesn't Clown--who can mutate into a powerful demonic giant named Violator--release the virus himself? Why doesn't Spawn--who can use his unearthly armor to do just about anything--knock off Clown early and spare us all the trouble? And where's God in all of this? There doesn't seem to be any angelic presence to offer a threat to Satan's dominance; there are just varying degrees of evil.

More importantly, who convinced Martin Sheen to make fool of himself in a scenery-chewing villain role? He actually emits an evil laugh at one point. ("Anyone who refuses to join my consortium won't be around to argue...HA HA HA!") And who thought it would be entertaining to hear Leguizamo make dated pop-culture references and mumble about his indigestion for two hours? His hideous visage is in almost every frame of the movie, repulsing the audience at every turn with cracked blue makeup, yellowed teeth, and stale, gross jokes.

Hell to pay John Leguizamo and Martin Sheen, trying to figure out just how they ended up acting in Spleen. Photo by Peter Lovino.

One thing can be said for Spawn: It will likely please fans of the comic. But then, as previously noted, the comic is hardly Gunga Din. Image Comics was founded by artists, not by writers, and as a result its books tend to replace story with two-page spreads of men with huge forearms and tiny heads. The emphasis is on gritted teeth, big punches, and heroes with a murderous streak. The vision of Image's founders is of a corrupt world where superpowered beings effect no change and where blood equals meaning.

This take on the superhero is borrowed from the "breakthrough" comics of the mid-'80s, Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. Unfortunately, as good as those two books were, their influence on the genre has been devastating. Ninety percent of today's superhero comics have "grim 'n' gritty" protagonists who swear, kill, and brood.

The other 10 percent consist of postmodern heroic tales that combine affectionate comment on the genre with Pulp Fiction-esque scenes of a superhero's everyday life. The maestro of the genre is writer Kurt Busiek, who has graced us with the revisionist Marvels, the bright Untold Tales of Spider-Man, and the magical Astro City. These are the superhero comics I would like to see translated into cinema--fun stories that play with the superhero mythology and speak to the fundamental appeal of the genre, while reminding us that adventure stories can be entertaining and thoughtful. If someone could capture that feeling of awe and mischievousness on celluloid, we'd really have something. The problem with filming a comic like Spawn is that even when you get the tone and details right, it's no triumph.--Noel Murray

Grooming for success

It's been several years since we first heard about the shortage of leading ladies in Hollywood, and the situation has only gotten worse. In the realm of romantic comedy, Julia Roberts is about the only sure thing out there, and she doesn't make that many movies. Meg Ryan has stereotyped herself into a corner as cute-and-perky, and you know the situation is dire when producers are falling over themselves to cast Cameron Diaz. So why shouldn't Jennifer Aniston make a play for some box office, even if she has been overexposed on Friends? If she gets a few more solid, unpretentious scripts like Picture Perfect, she could establish herself as a contender in the rarefied market of female comedic leads.

Like most romantic comedies, Picture Perfect has a wacky premise: Advertising copywriter Kate can't get a promotion unless her boss thinks she's living beyond her means (he thinks it makes his workers hungry), and she can't get dreamboat Kevin Bacon unless he thinks she's unavailable. So friend Darcy (Illeana Douglas) makes up a fianc for Kate based on a wedding videographer named Nick (Jay Mohr). Naturally, Nick will soon have to play the lover's role and will fall for Kate while doing so.

Fortunately, movies have ways of making the audience forget such preposterous premises. Engaging stars go a long way, and Aniston and Mohr are attractive both separately and together. Aniston has an antic, Mary Tyler Moore-ish quality that plays well on the big screen; she creates a character nicely distinct from her TV persona. My only complaint is that she consistently neglects to button her blouses, as if all we came to see was cleavage. Jennifer, sister, you've got talent--you don't need to work blue.

Jay Mohr, who had a cup of coffee with Saturday Night Live and turned heads as evil agent Bob Sugar in Jerry Maguire, has a deadpan sincerity that clicks with Aniston's flightiness. It really works in the farcical sections of the script, like the hilarious dinner set-piece in which Nick foils Kate's every attempt to play out the script she's written. At such times, the movie's script feels like it's being ad-libbed; in reality, it's just loose enough to direct the stars' energies without stifling them. Director and cowriter Glenn Gordon Caron keeps the timing sharp but doesn't clutter the screen or the plot.

Rather than griping about Aniston's roots in television, audiences and critics should welcome the appearance of a serviceable comedic actress with potential. After all, most of the female movie stars who couldn't cut it as leads have retreated to sitcoms (Lea Thompson, Brooke Shields, Ta Leoni), so there's nothing wrong with someone trying to reverse the process. Picture Perfect's success is almost guaranteed, thanks to the dearth of summer movies for the female and date audience. But don't count out Aniston and Mohr just because they latched onto a sure thing.--Donna Bowman

The light fantastic

Few things take more guts than standing up in front of a roomful of strangers to dance. Nobody wants to risk looking like a stiff or a spaz; it's a lot easier to huddle against a wall and laugh at those who dare. And yet the risk of looking stupid only deepens your pleasure once you lose yourself in the music and the moment--it's like the crush of G-forces before the onrush of weightlessness.

This sensation also apparently transcends cultures. Shall We Dance?, an exuberant, lovable, little crowd-pleaser of a romantic comedy, concerns a timid, overworked businessman, Mr. Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho), who's lured to a dance studio by the pretty girl he spies from his train window each night. Everything in Sugiyama's life tells him he should leave the studio: Not only is ballroom dancing considered disreputable in Japan--outside of competition, natch--but it also requires stumbling through humiliating introductory lessons. Nevertheless, unbeknownst to his wife and daughter, he purchases a pair of dance shoes and begins a secret life as a waltzing fool.

Most of the movie takes place in or around the dance class, which writer-director Masayuki Suo fills with a stand-in for every member of the audience--most memorably the bald, high-strung accountant Aoki (Naoto Takeneka), who becomes a long-haired Latin lover on the dance floor. What makes Shall We Dance? so irresistible is the way we get to see what dancing means to each of these people, and how it transforms them. As in great pop movies like Dirty Dancing and Saturday Night Fever, the dance floor is the place where people forget social pressure and saving face to shake off their inhibitions. The dance numbers themselves are luxuriously photographed, with none of that damnable Flashdance editing that chops dancers into disconnected body parts. The director treats the wide screen as a dance floor, and he gives everyone room to cut loose.

Four on the floor Reiko Kusamura, Yu Tokui, Hiromasa Taguchi, and Koji Yakusyo (l.-r.) in Shall We Dance?

With rare exceptions, moviegoers in the 1970s and 1980s rejected the movie musical for being too innocent, too corny. But after the way people responded to Strictly Ballroom and Everyone Says I Love You--as opposed to the lead-footed Evita--it's obvious audiences are once again famished for gorgeous colors, lavish costumes, pretty songs, and elegant dance numbers. Shall We Dance?, a blockbuster in its native Japan, is shaping up as an arthouse sensation here because it appeals, like musicals, like dance, to the hidden passions in everyone.

Does Mr. Sugiyama rekindle the spark in his marriage? Does he sweep the pretty dance instructor into his arms for a spin around the floor? All I'll say is that if you give this charmer a chance, you'll spend the next day at work like Mr. Sugiyama: humming the Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me" and tapping out cha-cha steps under the desk.--Jim Ridley

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