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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Please, I go through *everyone's* trash: Watchmen

Saw Watchmen last night. This is probably going to be terse. For me, I mean:
It was ok.

It starts out well, in fact. The murder of the Comedian establishes the visual style that will dominate for most of the movie, and it seems like a good balance between honoring the artwork of the graphic novel and realizing that a movie can't be panels strung together.

The credits are fantastic, and the opening scene looks even better in comparison. In the retelling of the story of the Minutemen in a series of snapshots and headlines, the colors are brighter and the lighting is designed to make the scenes flatter and less realistic. The good times of the past are more romantic, the bad times more lurid. The recreation of historic events in the credits is also more successful, in part because Zack Snyder almost always does something that breaks the fourth wall, signaling movement into a new scene. All very nice.

Everything about Rorschach is perfect. The costume is great. The shifting effect of the mask was done very well. It was only near the end of the movie when I was deep in "Why am I here? Why is anyone in this movie doing the things they are doing? Why did some terrible, but not life-threatening accident not befall Malin Akerman in childhood, saving us all from this 'performance'?" mode that I wondered why it does shift. (IMDB's trivia notes that the material for the mask had been intended for a dress ordered by Kitty Genovese, which is an interesting detail, but sheds no light on the effect.)

Jackie Earle Haley is magnificent as Rorschach. Perhaps even more important, Haley is magnificent as Walter Kovacs, and so often things go whizzing down legs when the mask comes off.

On our drive back down to LA, the ZK and I were listening to the Filmspotting podcast that includes their Watchmen review, and they compare his performance with Heath Ledger's Joker. I concur, and although it might seem to be picking on the dead guy to do so, I'd give Haley the edge if I were required to choose the better performance, mostly because the writing for the Joker is perfect, whereas the writing for Rorschach is merely the best writing in a pretty terrible screenplay.

Ok, if I'm going to have to talk about the screenplay, and I assume I must, I guess I have to nitpick one thing about Rorschach: The presentation of his origin story deflated my enthusiasm for the character. Worse still, the poor work on the origin story made me think about a facet of his characterization throughout the movie that is not done well. Most of his origin story is spun well. The case that kills the last of Kovacs and gives birth to Rorschach is compelling (although I think Snyder veers too much into torture porn at the end of it).

But poor widdle Walter's mommy was a prostitute and not nice to him? Please. What a half-assed, trite, misogynist piece of boo hoo. Probably I have Alan Moore to blame for the original sentiment, but neither screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse nor Snyder do anything to elevate the moment. By the time the events in the hallway are spelled out, we've already seen those events several times. WE GET IT.

In addition to finding the director's lack of faith in the audience disturbing, spelling out this element of Rorschach's story also calls attention to his Puritanical-bordering-on-phobic distaste for sex. The world that's represented isn't exactly crawling with sexual debauchery (with the exception of a scene where Rorschach is pursued by an aggressive prostitute). I guess we're supposed to attribute the recurring theme in his voice overs to his sociopathic misperception, but as the most memorable instances of it are directed at the first Silk Spectre and at Silhouette, it comes off, once again, as simple misogyny. Yawn.

But the screenplay has more dire problems. There is very little in the way of through narrative. Again, that might be the fault of Moore and the graphic novel originally, but it behooves the screenwriters and director to show some attention to the translation from one medium to the other. Character-establishing sidestreets and character-building interactions in the present seem to have been flung down randomly on the timeline.

The Filmspotting blokes were critical of the long digression into Dr. Manhattan's history. They were ultimately of the opinion that we didn't need to see it at all. I can't agree, though, because Dr. Manhattan is so poorly integrated into the story to begin with, I feel that if I knew even less about him, it would have been impossible to regard him as anything more than the deus ex machina inappropriately placed on the mantel in Act I. The poor exploration of Dr. Manhattan left me wondering about things like why his execution method ends up so gory. On the one hand, I appreciate making death look like death, when violence is too often rendered beautifully and lovingly. On the other, if there were ever a killer whose method would be neat without fuss or nasty clean-up, it seems like that killer would be Dr. Manhattan.

I also wanted more Dr. Manhattan, because I really liked Billy Crudup's performance both in and out of the magical light suit. I do agree that the origin story is both too long and placed far too late in the film. It might have worked better if it had been interspersed in the story as flashes of memory or reflection on Dr. Manhattan's part. In contrast, I think Dr. Manhattan's yogic sojourn to Mars went on far too, long. In particular, his 9-minute monologue about the miracle that is Silk Spectre II rang, shall we say, false in my ears.

I'd argue that the handling of Veidt/Ozymandias is a cautionary tale of how much worse things could have been on the Dr. Manhattan front. I mean no disrespect to Matthew Goode, whose performance I also liked. I really loved the precision of his speech and the fact that the smartest man in the world visibly struggles with talking in Slow. Loud. English. to the rest of us. But Ozymandias is a disaster.

The ZK asked me if I figured out early on that he was the villain. "Figured out" is probably inaccurate. There were no options other than Ozymandias presented (Nixon or Kissinger, I suppose). I assumed he was the villain about 4 seconds into his Annie Leibovitz shoot, but doubted myself on the grounds that his plot makes no sense at all. That's ok, plots often don't make sense to the outside observer, but I know virtually nothing about Ozymandias (except that he apparently missed the irony in the Shelley poem), so I don't know why it makes sense to him, and that's a big problem. I'm not sure what the scene with him and the '80s vintage robber barons is meant to accomplish. It certainly doesn't give the character any depth, the ruse with the assassin is laughably transparent, and YES LISA, WE ALREADY FIGURED OUT THAT HE SHOVED THE CYANIDE CAPSULE IN THE GUY'S MOUTH, WHICH HE WAS HOLDING CLOSED EVEN AS HE DEMANDED TO KNOW WHO'D SENT THE DAMNED ASSASSIN IN THE FIRST PLACE.

Ahem. Moving on. The Filmspotting guys took issue with Patrick Wilson as a schlumpy loser who can only get it up in his owl head high above the city. It is utterly unfair of me to attribute the fact that I had no problem buying him him as a complete loser whose face seriously needed murdering to Patrick WIlson at all. I actually liked Patrick Wilson as Raoul in the horrible Schumacher Phantom of the Opera, thus ensuring that my and Ebert's opposition would be completely diametric.

Nonetheless, the sad truth is that poor Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II is so persistently saddled with Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II that I can barely think about him and his chin butt without throwing up in my mouth a little. Akerman is certainly the worst tragedy to befall this actor and this character, but the screenplay is doing him no favors, either. His monologue in the riot scene is horrible. His tushy in the Owl!Cave is sad. His pathetic thrusting is cringe-worthy, and his cuddling in Archie's eye socket made me want to auger out my own eye sockets.

But I should back up to the prenookie fire rescue. (1) What part of "The roof is starting to cave in" inspires Nite Owl to knock a water tower over on to said roof? (2) Given that it is 1985, not 1885, why is your primary weapon some kind of Gatling gun? (3) Leaving aside issue (2), if all you have is a perforating gun, why not shoot a big hole in the water tower itself, rather than delicately shooting out the supporting struts?

I just don't think I can talk about Malin Akerman directly. It's probably best to let Madeline Kahn do the talking. (So true, so often.)

What. the hell. were they thinking?

The trivia in IMDB for the movie counters every possible argument for her casting and every possible argument that might temper any criticism of her performance. She is only 7 years older than the many-times-hotter Carla Gugino. She is actually older than Laura Mennell, who plays Janey Slater, the "older woman" that Dr. Manhattan leaves for Silk Spectre II. And the generous speculation of the Filmspotting guys that she might've had to act opposite a tennis ball in her scenes with Dr. Manhattan is negated by this: "Billy Crudup simultaneously provided Manhattan's placeholder and motion capture on set. Crudup wore a specially-designed motion capture suit and face markers, and was constantly filmed by at least two cameras, one for all-over movement and another trained on his face to follow his expressions. This way, his on-set performance as the placeholder could be used directly in creating the CGI character."

If I must say something nice, I'll say that Akerman's performance has the presumably unintended result of boosting my estimation of Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta.

It's probably right around the time of owl-head nookie that I think the movie falls completely off the cliff. Even the look of it disintegrates. Yes, I understand that it's set in 1985, so I have to live through the fashion and hair choices of that era. I do not, however, understand why Ozymandias appears to have stolen the building materials for Karnak II from the set of Flash Gordon. Seriously, when he hurls his throne through the air and Nite Owl uses his Colecovision controller to saw the leg off, I thought, "Does your mother know that you stole her faux French Provincial chair AND took off the plastic slipcover?"

It's just . . . arrrruguuguuhhh.

I really did like big chunks of the movie, so I'll try to end on a smattering of positive notes. Matt Frewer's supporting role as Moloch is wonderful, and it was a gift to give him and Haley that much time together on screen. (But the flashback to the Comedian's tearful night-time visit was terrible.) Everything from the moment that Rorschach says, "I have to use to the men's room" to his rejoining Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II is gold. Shooting the scene through the swinging door was beautifully done. (But Snyder just HAS to go back to the cheezy shot of the blood running out from under the door.)

The movie had real potential, and it realized some of it. Perhaps it's best to be grateful for that, given the fact that a movie version has been in development for something like 15 years. But I stand by my original assessment: It was ok.

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