Thursday, July 30, 2009

Watchmen - Director's Cut

Watchmen is widely considered the greatest graphic novel (novel-length comic book) ever written, and is the only graphic novel to make Time Magazine’s list of “the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.” Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (illustrator) created a work so rich, so complex, that no film could ever be its equal. Director Zack Snyder (300) obviously loves the book, and though he handled the material with great respect and care, the finished product emerges uneven. It’s visually arresting and carries glimpses of greatness, but doesn’t fully satisfy. Watchmen - Director’s Cut clocks in at 186 minutes, and yet that’s still not enough time to properly communicate the themes, the characters, and the setting.

The story unfolds in an alternate reality in New York City, 1985. America was victorious in Vietnam, Richard Nixon is still President, and tensions with the Soviet Union are at an all-time high. Most of the main characters are regular people who years ago donned costumes and teamed up to fight crime, but were forced to retire after Nixon approved legislation banning all “Costumed Crimefighters.” Eddie Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who used to be a crimefighter named The Comedian, gets thrown from a building in the film’s opening scene. In the wake of The Comedian’s murder, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the only Costumed Crimefighter who never retired, investigates a possible conspiracy. All of the Costumed Crimefighters examine their own lives, trying to reconcile their good intentions with the bleak reality of a dying World that doesn’t want their help.

That bare-bones summary doesn’t even touch the surface, much less scratch it. The characters of Watchmen have deep psychological profiles, the setting has deep history, and the overall story has very deep themes. Only a televised miniseries, created perhaps for HBO or Showtime, could have properly handled this story. The book has twelve chapters, so a six-hour miniseries could have given 30 minutes to each chapter, and even then, material probably would have been cut. Imagine how much would have been lost if Roots or The Lord of the Rings had been crammed into three hours. This forest has so many significant trees that you just can’t show them all in three hours, and because of that, the forest as a whole doesn’t make enough sense.

In reality, Watergate and Vietnam were the primary causes of American disillusionment, but Watchmen examines a world in which those events unfolded differently, causing a quieter, slower, and much more heartbreaking decay. The movie portrays this world effectively in some scenes, especially when The Comedian and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) attempt to control an angry mob. Their effort to assist people quickly goes awry, and The Comedian begins shooting innocent civilians. “What happened to us?”, Nite Owl asks. “What happened to the American Dream?” The Comedian turns around from the fleeing crowd, gun in hand. “What happened to the American Dream? It came true. You’re looking at it.”

Most of the characters are played well, especially The Comedian and Rorschach. Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a great job carrying The Comedian’s attitude that all of life is a “big joke.” He’s a brutal, sadistic jerk who laughs at the horrors around him because that’s the only way he can cope. Rorschach believes in traditional morality: good vs. evil, though he uses violence to persecute evildoers. Jackie Earle Haley becomes this character, speaking in a raspy voice from behind a mask featuring a constantly changing Rorschach blot. Only one character, Ozymandias, is represented poorly. He’s supposed to be strong and dashing: the ideal man, and certainly the closest to the traditional masculine superhero. In the film, he’s much too creepy.

It’s important to note that, apart from one big exception, none of the characters have special powers. They’re just regular people who decided to make a difference. The movie has a beautiful, stylized polish, similar to what Snyder used in 300, and while it’s a joy to behold, realism would have been more appropriate. After all, this isn’t a traditional superhero story. The characters are multi-dimensional and real, and I wish the gloss had been traded in favor of grit. Even the violence, while extremely graphic, is too pretty and cartoonish. Most shots in the movie are lifted straight from the graphic novel, frame for frame, but the overall tone of realism got sacrificed in favor of eye candy. As soon as realism slips, the story’s power to affect us emotionally slips along with it.

The only character with superpowers is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a man who became God-like after suffering an accident during a physics experiment. He has virtually every power imaginable; he can be anywhere at any time and can do anything. His skin glows blue, he speaks in a calm voice, and he is most definitely not human. He has so many powers that he doesn’t feel obligated to help humans in the least. He doesn’t understand them anymore, and he sees the Universe as being much larger and more significant than the survival of humanity. The one character who could save the World doesn’t care to, and the characters who want to help have slowly become the very evil that they set out to eliminate.

The universe of Watchmen is vast and complex, and I applaud Zack Snyder for performing admirably under the circumstances. The task was impossible from the start, but he did well, making a film that works best as a supplement to the graphic novel. The Director’s Cut adds an important story element concerning Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie), the original Nite Owl from the 1940’s, but it’s just one of many missing pieces. As a stand-alone experience, the film works, but it doesn’t carry the narrative power of the graphic novel. If the film piques your interest, do yourself a favor and read Watchmen. One is a solid effort, but the other is a masterpiece.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity, and language.

NOTHING ABOUT THIS MOVIE IS APPROPRIATE FOR KIDS - PERIOD. I don’t care that it has superheroes, and I don’t care if “Billy’s Mom let him see it,” or whatever. The content is very disturbing, and the themes are too deep for kids to grasp. An R rating means 17 and older, and this movie is rated R with good reason.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Classic Series: The Wild Bunch

When The Wild Bunch premiered in 1969, Westerns were a dying breed, soon to be a fondly-remembered chapter of film history. Clint Eastwood helped reinvent the genre with the gritty Spaghetti Westerns of the 1970’s, but the classic Old West of Cowboys and Indians, the West that belonged to John Wayne, had all but disappeared. Director Sam Peckinpah and his team were ending an era, and most remarkable of all, they knew it. The Wild Bunch takes place in 1913, when only a few remnants remained of the wild American West. Like many films that endure, The Wild Bunch arrived at the perfect moment in history. One of the original taglines for the film read, “The land had changed. They hadn’t. The earth had cooled. They couldn’t.”

Like The Godfather, you’d be hard pressed to name the “good guys” in this picture, though at least in The Godfather, some characters are more likable than others. In The Wild Bunch, they’re all jerks. The film opens with a group of aging outlaws preparing to rob a bank. Pike (William Holden) and Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) head-up the operation, while Deke (Robert Ryan) and his crew hope to stop the thieves once and for all. The thieves narrowly get away, setting off a cat-and-mouse game that continues throughout the picture. The men live by their own rules, and they all refuse to admit that the world has moved on without them.

If you had to name the “good guys,” you’d probably point to Deke’s crew, simply because they’re working in conjunction with the police, though it’s plain to see that they’re only in it for the money. You get the feeling that if the payoff were better on the other side, they’d trade loyalties without thinking twice. The men show no regard for traditional morality, though they do live by ethical codes of their own invention. Pike shouts at one of his men early in the film, “We’re gonna stick together ... When you side with a man, you stay with him, and if you can’t do that, you’re like some animal!” Most of the dialogue comes in similarly crazed, melodramatic spurts. When Pike later defends Deke’s actions, saying, “He gave his word,” Dutch screams, “That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!”

The Wild Bunch holds a very low view of women, all the more surprising because the feminist movement was thriving by 1969. Instead of the usual backseat role that Westerns place women in, this movie throws them out of the side door and into the street. Male characters in older Westerns certainly didn’t view women as equals, but at least they respected them. The men in The Wild Bunch use women for their own purposes before disposing of them, often through violence. Whenever women get riddled with bullets, either accidentally or intentionally, the men show neither remorse, nor emotion of any kind. For them, it’s all just part of the lifestyle.

The suspense builds over unusually long periods prior to the action scenes, and when the action does come, it’s bloody and relentless. Like Bonnie and Clyde two years before (1967), The Wild Bunch marked a new level of on-screen violence. It’s not overly gory, but it is realistic. When bullets hit, blood spews, bringing an unpleasant honesty that Westerns just hadn’t seen before. Scenes are edited together with many cuts, often showing the same piece of action across multiple shots and angles. A bullet will strike someone, and the camera will cut to another scene. Then the victim will begin to fall, and the camera will cut away again. Then the victim will hit the sand, and the camera will cut once more. The shoot-outs are fast-paced, confusing, and altogether gritty.

So, when the dust settles, does the film endorse violence, or make some kind of statement against it? I’m not sure, though I’m leaning towards neither. I don’t think The Wild Bunch makes any statement, so much as it tells a story. It’s a tale of free-spirited, untamed men fading away in an increasingly domesticated world. It depicted a strange corner of history, and it carved out its own piece of film history along the way. John Wayne famously accused the film of destroying “the myth of the Old West,” but if the film has any moral, it’s that you can’t stop progress. The Wild Bunch moved cinema along, and it did so at the right time. Edmond O’Brien utters the film’s last line: “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” It didn’t just mark the end of The Wild Bunch - it was the end of an era.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The sixth film in the franchise, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince takes on a foe even more intimidating than He Who Must Not Be Named: high expectations. Not only do the books boast a remarkably spirited fan base, but books six and seven are among the most beloved. Added to this, the movies have been pretty impressive up to this point, so fans everywhere look to the sixth film with the highest of hopes. As a fan myself, I’m thrilled to be a bearer of good news: while not the best in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince casts a superb spell, indeed.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) returns to Hogwarts School for his sixth year, and romance is in the air. Despite raging hormones, Harry can’t shake his eerie premonition that Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) has joined Lord Voldemort’s followers and been given a secret mission. As Harry tries to unravel the mystery of Draco’s errand, Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) teaches Harry more about the Dark Lord’s troubled past. The key to defeating Voldemort lies in a memory which Harry must extract from Professor Horus Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), a new teacher at Hogwarts. Meanwhile, Harry excels in Potions class thanks to his most helpful used textbook, which once belonged to a mysterious student known only as the Half-Blood Prince.

Performances all around are stellar in this film, and Rupert Grint and Emma Watson (Ron and Hermione) give their finest performances to date. In the past, Harry Potter actors have sometimes gone overboard with certain character traits, but not here. Almost every exchange rings true, and the film spends more time on genuine emotion than it does on fantasy. Jim Broadbent brings the perfect, complex balance to Professor Slughorn, though perhaps the most pleasant acting surprise of all is how Tom Felton rises to the challenge as Draco Malfoy. His performances have been fairly monotone ever since the first film, but this time around, he fills Malfoy with conflict and vulnerability. For this story to work, Malfoy needed to be a deeper character, and Felton delivered.

This is also one of the funniest films of the franchise, with romantic angst providing quite a few laughs. Author J.K. Rowling aged her characters masterfully, and screenplay writer Steve Kloves successfully translates the hormonal confusion to the screen. In addition to typical teenage issues, these young wizards have to cope with girls slipping them love potions, and one of the funniest bits comes when Ron unknowingly drinks such a potion. “It’s no joke,” Ron tells Harry. “I’m in love with her!” “Fine,” Harry says, “you’re in love with her; have you ever actually met her?” “No,” says Ron. “Could you introduce me?”

The film depends heavily upon its last act, which unfortunately falls short of its full potential. It’s rare for film adaptations to cut action scenes that exist in the books, and I’m not sure why they chose to omit so much of the battle that takes place at the end of Half-Blood Prince. The action as it unfolds in the text would have heightened the drama and raised the stakes. Even the Half-Blood Prince himself, the film’s title character, should have been given more significance and explanation in the closing act. As is, the ending still packs a punch, but nowhere near the powerhouse that it should have been. Those who haven’t read the book may love it, but I think most fans will scratch their heads a bit, wondering why the finale was underplayed.

While the ending falls short, it certainly does not fall flat. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a movie that fans can be proud of, boasting a strong visual style outmatched only by its character development. The friendship between Harry and Dumbledore is genuinely touching, right from the film’s unexpected, yet pitch-perfect opening shot. I feel confident that director David Yates will wrap up the franchise well, and with the final film being split and released as two movies, I trust that the book will be adequately represented. For now, head on over to Hogwarts to behold that rarest of magical creatures: a big summer movie that actually delivers.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality.

This film has some scares, but nothing nightmarish. Whereas the last film was given a PG-13 (understandably), PG is the right rating here. I think kids will enjoy it, and the other elements listed above (violence, language, mild sensuality) are pretty tame.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

The title for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has multiple meanings, though it mainly refers to the franchise, which has fallen into despair and is now seeking revenge against us, the innocent moviegoers. Michael Bay has upped the ante in every department, especially those departments that didn’t need any ‘upping,’ resulting in a loud, unintelligent explosion-fest that fails to recreate the magic of the first Transformers. Many will say that you can’t bring high expectations to a movie like this, but if you come to a bad movie with low expectations, and your low expectations are met, what kind of praise is that? I was at least hoping for the same level of quality as the original, but Michael Bay tried to fix what wasn’t broken, giving rise to a computer-generated bore.

The film opens with the Autobots (the good Transformers) fighting alongside the US Military to hunt down the Decepticons (the bad Transformers). Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) heads off to his Freshman year at Princeton, beginning a long-distance relationship with his scantily-clad girlfriend, Mikaela (Megan Fox). As Sam begins to have strange visions of alien symbols, the Decepticons plan to kill him and use his brain for their sinister purposes. Sam must team up with the Autobots to defeat The Fallen, an ancient Decepticon who hopes to exterminate humanity by destroying the Sun.

If that plot sounds both convoluted and stupid, then my summary was a success. Honestly, in a movie about alien robots, who cares about all that junk? The first Transformers worked because it had the right blend of character development, action, and humor. A charming performance by Shia LaBeouf sealed the deal, creating a surprise blockbuster that appealed to viewers across different age groups. On the other end of the spectrum, Transformers 2 has the worst kind of mix: one that won’t appeal to any age group. In trying to please everyone, it pleases no one. This movie has absolutely no idea who its target audience is.

When it comes to a Summer movie about robot cars from outer space, it doesn’t take a Hollywood executive to know that the target audience consists of young teenage boys. Why, then, is this movie bursting with inappropriate content? The language and sexual humor are so over-the-top that parents won’t be pleased, and the kids sitting next to their parents will probably just feel awkward. The charming humor of the first film is long gone, replaced by gags that fall somewhere between third-rate and downright bizarre. Metallic robot testicles, racial stereotypes, and a robot that humps the heroine’s leg all turn up at various points. That last one struck me as an especially cheap laugh. Do machines actually procreate as we do? The only thing missing is a Transformer fart joke.

When Sam arrives at Princeton, the movie resorts to every college cliché ever filmed: the weird roommate, the bad first day of class, legions of girls that look airbrushed, ridiculous parties ... I half-expected a CG John Belushi to run past in a toga. Apparently, Princeton traded its Ivy League status and became a talent pool for “Girls Gone Wild.” Sam’s mom even gets high on Pot brownies and runs around the campus like she’s on LSD. I don’t know what happened to the writers between films, but there’s no excuse for the dense plot, dimwitted jokes, and treatment of sexuality like it’s something funny and shameful. If the first Transformers reminded me of the carefree fun and playfulness of youth, the sequel reminded me more of the guys’ locker room.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen runs for roughly the same length as its predecessor, though it feels twice as long. In its final act, the film descends into an endless barrage of robotic mayhem, explosions, and slow motion shots of Megan Fox’s boobs bouncing up and down. There’s no sense of wonder because we don’t care about the characters, the story, or the machines. The transformations themselves aren’t even as innovative this time around. There’s nothing here to rival the moment in the first film when Starscream flies in as an airplane, transforms in midair, and begins ripping fighter jets out of the sky.

The short list of pros includes impressive effects, the return of Agent Simmons (John Turturro), and the innovation of Decepticons defecting and joining the Autobots. The list of cons might overload my poor laptop’s processor, so I’ll close by saying that the inevitable third film had better pull itself together. Michael Bay & Co. obviously stumbled into success with the first, and now it’s time to look back at that movie and take a few pointers. The first Transformers, while entertaining, still had major flaws. It shouldn’t have been hard to match, or even surpass, but sitting in the theater during Revenge of the Fallen, I began reminiscing about the first like it was an old classic.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, language, some crude and sexual material, and brief drug material.

The language and sexuality go way beyond the original Transformers. This film is rated PG-13, though I’d say 14-15 is more like it. Regardless of age, no one will enjoy this film more than the first, so unless your kids are absolutely dying to see it, I’d stay home, save your money, and watch the original Transformers again.