Who is that masked man? Once upon a time he was Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) a rookie cop killed in the line of duty. Now he’s The Spirit the perennially beleaguered and battered hero of Central City who can’t seem to ever die. No matter how brutal the licking he keeps on ticking. Such invincibility irks the Spirit’s nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) a megalomaniac who craves the same sort of power and would like nothing better than to crush Central City underfoot before setting his sights on complete world domination. Ever a ladies’ man even when teetering on the edge of death our hero is always surrounded by a bevy of beauties including childhood flame Sand Saref (Eva Mendes) now a crafty jewel thief; Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson) the foxy physician who carries a torch for him; Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) who gets her kicks aiding and abetting the Octopus; fast-talking rookie cop Morgenstern (Stana Katic) whose definitely got her eye on the Spirit; and Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega) whose loyalties like her outfit of choice can be rather skimpy. It’s a wonder the Spirit has any time to fight crime given how much time he’s making with the ladies. But who can blame him? In many ways and like so many comic-book movies story is distinctly a secondary consideration to mood atmosphere and attitude -- and The Spirit’s got ‘em all in spades. Channeling such film noir favorites as Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum Macht does a nice job as the gruff and tough Spirit occasionally pondering his fate when he’s not saving the day. As the Octopus Jackson doesn’t so much chew the scenery as make a seven-course meal out of it. Restraint is not in this film’s vocabulary. There are also plenty of opportunities for the film’s luscious ladies to strut their stuff which they do with good humor and even better outfits. Everyone on hand plays perfectly in sync with the spirit (no pun intended) of the proceedings including Dan Lauria as the crusty police commissioner and Louis Lombardi in multiple roles as the Octopus’ dim-witted henchmen all of whom have apparently been cloned from some low-IQ DNA. Look also for screenwriter/director Frank Miller as a cop who loses his head. In his first solo stint as director Frank Miller works overtime to capture the visual style of Eisner’s comic book and thanks to the advancements on CGI he has a massive palette in which to exercise that. The Spirit is eye candy -- at heart what comic book movie isn’t? -- but it makes no bones about it and no aspirations beyond it. It’s meant to be a cheeky diversion and on that score it makes the grade. The visual panache of the film is indeed impressive and there’s a refreshing sense of self-mockery to the proceedings. However those who prefer their comic-book heroes rendered in a more straightforward fashion may be taken aback by the sardonic approach. Here characters are just as apt to make a wisecrack or toss in a non-sequitur as deliver an important piece of expository dialogue. It will be interesting to see how the film performs at the box office if audiences embrace that approach and if indeed this becomes the foundation for the latest superhero franchise. Worse things have happened.
Is there any "truth" at all in the story of Jesus of Nazareth's last 12 hours as told by five men: Matthew Mark Luke John and now Mel? Passion in Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles follows the basic narrative of the gospels starting from the night before Jesus' crucifixion: Jesus prays Judas betrays him to the priests of the temple Peter denies him Mary and Mary Magdalene weep for him as he carries his cross to the mount where the Romans led by Pontius Pilate will crucify him. He will die and he will rise again. Interspersed with this action are flashbacks to Jesus' preaching the last supper and Mary Magdalene's stoning. For centuries these gospels have been described sermonized and pantomimed but rarely are the intellectual and often esoteric debates underlying the storytelling placed so squarely at the center of popular culture. (The last time was with the release of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988. Then thousands of Christian fundamentalists picketed Universal Studios which hired a born-again Christian as a liaison to help calm the furor and placed security guards in theater lobbies. Scorsese himself hired bodyguards.) These days around the office water cooler people are talking about religion and the politics thereof instead of the latest episode of The Apprentice. There doesn't seem to be much debate that The Passion of the Christ is an important film. But controversy has swirled around it with arguments over everything from who got advance screenings (Christian leaders) and who didn't (Jewish leaders) to how the film was marketed (bulk sales to Christian groups have already bolstered opening day ticket sales) to Gibson's father calling the Holocaust mostly "fiction." But the single biggest fuss has been over allegations that the film places blame for the crucifixion on the Jewish high priest Caiphus and his cohorts--that it implies if not outright says that the Jewish people and their priests killed Jesus. Gibson's argument that his film is taken directly from the gospels simply doesn't wash with detractors. Yes there are biblical passages that implicate the priests of a certain sect of Judaism in turning Jesus over to the Romans and yes the story says the Jewish people of the time chose to release from prison the thief Barabbas rather than Jesus. But the Vatican II reforms of 1962-65 absolved Jews from any such responsibility and placing these dated ideas back into mainstream culture detractors say could incite those already inclined to anti-Semitism to new levels of hatred.
Gibson is reported to have embraced his father's religion twelve years ago a fundamental Catholicism called Traditionalism which rejects many of the Vatican reforms. Gibson himself has not said whether he agrees with all the faith's tenets or not. Indeed he has for the most part refused to discuss the controversy publicly. The content of the film itself would indicate that the director is interested not necessarily in implicating the Jewish people in Christ's death but rather in absolving the Roman authorities and by association the Roman Catholic Church. Pilate for example a historically violent ruler and usually the villain of the story comes off sympathetically in Passion. In fairness though the Roman soldiers take a greedy sadistic pleasure in inflicting many many tortures upon Jesus (Jim Caviezel). The camera lingers over their every cruel torment and jubilant reactions--so much so that the evil deeds of the movie's creepy androgynous version of Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) pale in comparison to the damage human beings can do to one another. There are however compassionate characters and their small kindnesses stand out amid the bloody violence that pervades the film. The man the Romans assign to carry Jesus' cross takes a stand on his behalf; a woman risks her life to wipe his blood and give him water; and his female companions his mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern who gives an outstanding performance) and Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci) offer comfort. Indeed the film's most powerful scenes capture the incredible bond between mother and son; Mary bears witness to her son's torture her reactions become the audience's reactions and they feel the mother's pain. Jesus himself is highly objectified (some would even say fetishized) a character who is examined brutalized and pitied but who does not participate in his own story. Caviezel makes the best of the part for which he underwent grueling makeup sessions and learned Aramaic Latin and Hebrew turning in a powerful if necessarily one-note performance.
Despite the movie's few hopeful moments the cruel characters far outweigh the kind so it's not surprising that the blood and gore they produce provide the bulk of the film's aesthetic. Relying heavily on Italian Renaissance iconography Passion is artistically speaking a well above average film in spite of the copious amounts of blood spilled--at moments it's even a great film. It finds its visual punch--a painful gut-wrenching punch that takes one's breath away--in a powerful grotesque visual palette of deep red blood and the seemingly unending flagellation of Jesus' body. It's terrifying awe-inspiring horrifying and gruesome. It is one of the most violent films ever made. But as hard as it is to watch it is even harder to come to terms with intellectually. In the end we do not see man's inhumanity redeemed by the crucifixion; the movie ends too abruptly to leave a lasting impression of hope after all that violence and it simply assumes its audience will understand and believe that Jesus' death saved humankind from its own cruelty. Frankly it doesn't work. The brutal visual power of Passion is such that it leaves one with the memory of a human race so violent that if it were "truth " would seem to justify all the fears critics have expressed about potential modern-day reactions to the film from anti-Semitism to radical Christian zealotry. The film presents human nature in Christ's day as largely violent sadistic and cruel; we have not the critics seem to say come very far since then.
The verdict of the critics regarding Monsters, Inc.: It's not as good as Shrek, but it's still good in its own right. Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News puts it this way: "Shrek is the better movie, with a more effective cast of supporting characters. But kids will find Monsters, Inc.'s Sully [voiced by John Goodman] every bit as lovable as his green counterpart in Shrek." Actually, a few critics find the new Pixar movie more diverting -- the Chicago Tribune's Mark Caro, for example, who writes: "Unlike Shrek, which seemed to be trying to appeal to everybody without providing a consistent tone or message for anybody, Monsters, Inc. is a G-rated family movie that knows its audience of the young and the young at heart. And it offers a lesson that seems particularly apt these days: Scaring kids may be inevitable, but making them laugh is a lot more satisfying." Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times makes no comparisons, simply approving the film as "cheerful, high-energy fun." A handful of critics give the film the back of their hand. Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times compares it not to Shrek, but to the three previous films from Pixar -- the two Toy Story movies and A Bug's Life. "Though it has its charms," Turan concludes, "Monsters, Inc. does not measure up." Jay Carr in the Boston Globe concludes that for Pixar, the film represents "perhaps an inevitable drop-off in freshness and originality." Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal, however, doesn't agree. "This latest animated feature is a worthy successor," he writes. "It's a joyous, boisterous fable."
SANTA MONICA, Calif., Feb. 9, 2000 -- The short-term diagnosis of NBC's "ER" is looking a lot brighter, as the show finally rebounded to the top of the ratings heap for the prime-time week ended Sunday, narrowly edging ABC's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" juggernaut.
Overall, though, these are ABC's days. In addition to the still stealthy "Millionaire," "Mary & Rhoda," the network's much-anticipated TV-movie reunion of "Mary Tyler Moore Show" sitcom gals Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) and Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), dominated Monday night, with an estimated 17.7 million viewers checking out the scene. The show was ABC's most-watched Monday night TV movie in a year. It simply blew out its competition -- in one case, it topped NBC's rival 8-10 p.m. lineup by 131 percent.
We won't know where "Mary & Rhoda" stacks up in the weekly ratings until, well, next week. For now, "ER" wears the crown. The ever-evolving chaos of a hospital emergency room brought in the single largest share of viewers last week -- flickering across the screens in 19.1 million homes.
Still, the nation's collective fantasy of striking it rich continued to dominate, with ABC's money-soaked "Millionaire" racking up four of the Top Five prime-time slots, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Night in, night out, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" consistently was watched in more than 17 million homes, reaching as many as 19.1 million viewers Feb. 1. Along with a strong showing by the legal drama "The Practice," ABC claimed half of the Top 10 spots. It easily won the network race with an average 10.2 rating. CBS was second with an 8.8, NBC slid to third with an 8.7, Fox finished fourth with an 8.5 and UPN topped rival WB, 2.9 to 2.7. (Each ratings point equals a little more than 1 million TV homes.)
Aside from "ER," NBC clocked into the Top 10 with the sitcoms "Friends" and "Frasier," which garnered viewing audiences in 15.7 and 14.1 million homes, respectively.
The Tiffany network (CBS' old-school nickname) managed two Top 10 entries, courtesy of "Touched by an Angel" and "Everybody Loves Raymond."
Some other random ratings factoids:
THE OTHERS: Fox's highest-rated show was "Malcolm in the Middle" (No. 28), the WB's "7th Heaven" (No. 63) and UPN's "WWF Smackdown" (No. 80).
OPPOSITE OF SUCCESS: The lowest-rated Fox show was the family drama "Get Real" (No. 88). On NBC, the laggard was the once-hot "3rd Rock From the Sun" (No. 82). At ABC, an ABC News special ran in the rear (No. 80), while at CBS, "Candid Camera" (No. 75) shuttered.
NICE TRY: NBC's attempt to build "Freaks and Geeks" into -- oh, let's say a show people actually watch -- is being met with resistance by, um, people who actually watch. The ode to 1980s high school finished in 64th place in its new 8-9 p.m. Monday time slot.
ON LIFE SUPPORT? CBS' much-touted urban medical drama "City of Angels" landed in an unheavenly 72nd place.
BAD NEWS IS GOOD NEWS: "Spin City," in headlines of late due to star Michael J. Fox's decision to bolt the political-minded sitcom at the end of the season, spun up to 24th place -- or 13 slots above its season-to-date ranking.
FIZZLED: UPN's hip-hop comedy "Shasta" was the lowest-rated major network show of the week (not including the rerun stuff on PAX). In a 109-show race, "Shasta" came in, yes, 109th place, averaging a 1.7 rating.
Here's the complete look at the Top 10 for the ratings week Jan. 31-Feb. 6:
1. "ER," NBC 2. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (Tues.), ABC 3. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (Thurs.), ABC 4. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (Wed.), ABC 5. "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" (Sun.), ABC 6. "Friends," NBC 7. "The Practice," ABC 8. "Frasier," NBC 9. "Touched by an Angel," CBS 10. "Everybody Loves Raymond," CBS
Jerry Zucker, who made his mark in Hollywood with the Airplane! movies is getting a bumpy ride from critics with his latest film, Rat Race. With some, he flies high. Richard Schickel in Time magazine, for example, writes that he resists going "all cosmic about an agreeably funny, well-made comedy designed for nothing grander than relief from the August heat." But, he writes, for the most part "it's a fine madness." Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times writes that the film is "the most old-fashioned, live-action comedy of the summer, and if you've seen its competition, you know that has to be a good thing." Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News gives the film four stars and concludes: "The movie is over in a breezy 112 minutes, but it may be another half-hour before your sides quit aching." Fittingly, Dave Kehr, Mathews' predecessor at the Daily News, who reportedly was fired for writing too many negative reviews, writes a perfunctorily negative review of Rat Race for the online CitySearch website. "This is one nasty movie," Kehr writes, "driven by a sadistic spirit and a complete contempt for its characters." Like most critics, Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal compares the movie -- unfavorably -- to Stanley Kramer's 1963 comedy extravaganza It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. "This ripoff ... has a few funny moments," he remarks, "but it's a sad sad sad sad example of what Hollywood is currently serving up ... as summer entertainment." Steven Rea in the Philadelphia Inquirer calls the film "a true and scary dud," while Eleanor Ringel Gillespie in the Atlanta Journal concludes: "Most of the movie is more obnoxious than funny with jokes that are too broad or too stale or both."