Friday, March 06, 2009

Scattershot Thoughts on the Watchmen Film

Few scattershot thoughts on the Watchmen film (anyone who doesn't want spoilers should not read):

Overall, I think it's the best feature film that could be made on its source material, and the best adaptation of an Alan Moore work (though that's saying next to nothing). But I also think it's proof that an HBO-style miniseries would be the best format to adapt Alan Moore and David Gibbons' seminal epic graphic novel about retired and disgraced costumed crimefighters in an alternate New York in 1985.

Director Zack Snyder and writers David Hayter and Alex Tse made smart cuts (for the most part) to make such a dense book a two and a half hour film, but they couldn't circumvent an inherent problem with a feature film based on this material: you don't have time to reflect on anything you're watching. It feels simultaneously overstuffed, yet thin. Neither the story nor characters have room to "breathe." The characters (with some exceptions) seem very two-dimensional, and some of the acting (again, with exceptions) is pretty gosh-darned terrible, though that may be the fault of the direction rather than the acting.

The casting/acting: Jackie Earle Haley and Patrick Wilson as Rorschach and Nite Owl, respectively (who, coincidentally, were both in Todd Field's 2006 film, Little Children) are really the only two actors that seem to be playing real people. Everyone else, unfortunately, seem like talking action figures/props. I'm not gonna lie, Billy Crudup is particularly lame as Dr. Manhattan, and I think the filmmakers made a huge error with Ozymandias (Matthew Goode is horribly miscast, and the film's overall take on the character is misguided: he comes across as a sinister creep right out of the gate, which takes away any weight to the revelation that he's behind the Comedian's murder and Dr. Manhattan's exile).

Consider the scene where a Vietnamese woman has just sliced open the Comedian's face. The Comedian, face dripping with blood, stoically telling Dr. Manhattan he's lost touch. Nothing in his voice or body language indicates that he's even aware that, y'know, his face has been horribly cut by a broken beer bottle. When the Comedian's finished with his monologue, he then calls out, "Medic! Gimme a goddamn medic!" as if it just occurred to him after his mini-monologue he needs medical attention.

Weird incongruous scenes like that happen throughout, where the actors seem to forget what exactly they're doing.

And, the violence: the film's excessively violent, and all the Matrix-style violence and action sequences are horribly inappropriate. The irony is that the Watchmen comic book didn't have comic book-style violence, whereas the violence in the film is simultaneously excessive and cartoonish. The fight sequences constantly took me out of the movie. And I know this is supposed to be a hard-R superhero movie, and I know this is supposed to be gritty and all that, but was Silk Spectre ripping a knot-top attacker's bone out of his arm really necessary?

Okay, enough shitting on the movie. Here's what it gets right:

Yes, they change the ending. It's better. Don't look at me like that. You know I'm right. It makes more sense and is less silly. (I mean, we're all friends here, we all love the book, but come on: a giant fake alien squid monster? Little silly.) It ties into the concept of Dr. Manhattan better and makes his decision to leave earth after getting a renewed interest in humans make more sense.

Notwithstanding my dislike of the fight sequences, the overall production value is great. It looks amazing, and captures the feel of Dave Gibbons' original artwork.

Again, they actually made very smart cuts to fit the sprawling story into a feature-length film. My gut instinct is that this may be incoherent to anyone who doesn't know the book (not unlike this rambling post), but according to some rave reviews from Roger Ebert and Salon (from critics that are unfamiliar with the source material), I may stand to be corrected. I'm not being glib when I say this really is the best film that could be made based on the graphic novel.

I found the opening credits sequence interesting. It's scattered with nods to scenes implied and referred to in the comic (the death of certain costumed crimefighters, the Comedian killing JFK), all played to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changing," but aren't really referred to again in the film (except obliquely). For someone who's read the book, I enjoyed the hell out of this. For someone who hasn't, I really can't imagine it would make any sense at all.

I may be in the minority on this concept, but if it's a choice to make a slavish adaptation or an adaptation that makes lazy disrespectful changes to cater to the lowest common denominator, give me slavish. I'll take Snyder's Watchmen over the Hughes Brothers' From Hell any day. Though there are several changes throughout, you can tell Watchmen has been made by a director that has read, reread, and re-reread the source material backwards and front.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts on the film. Feel free to discuss.

Sharpening his ears

James "Moloch" Comtois

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8 Comments:

Blogger DPS said...

No surprise that I feel pretty much EXACTLY the same way on this. It is the absolute best adaptation that could made from this material, if you just have to go out and make a movie of it. I really enjoyed the hell out of it.

But yes, I think it revels in its violence -- and don't get me wrong, the action sequences are fairly spectacular. The fight choreography is amazing, and you can understand that these people GOT SHIT DONE as superheroes. Unfortunately, part of the point of the story is that these were just normal people becoming vigilantes, so the slickness of it is a little out of place.

But Jackie Earle Haley is spot-on as Rorschach, even down to the make-up they've used to make him look exactly like the panels, and his performance is extraordinary. (He was also amazing in Little Children. He makes some of the most fearless acting choices of anybody out there today.)

Patrick Wilson's Night Owl is also terrific. You feel for this guy, and he really embodies this character who wants to be something more, and can only be that when he's got his suit on, and his gear around him.

But I think they mishandled Ozymandias's story (and miscast it), it felt like they messed with the Comedian's arc in some way, and his story didn't have the punch it does in the comic, and Dr. Manhattan is just . . . meh.

Malin Ackerman as Silk Spectre (II) was also quite good -- not exceptional, but better than serviceable (although too young).

But in general, the movie was far more solid than I expected it to be.

11:46 AM  
Anonymous cgeye said...

I was taken out of the movie at the exact point of the streetfight... but that fight made Nolan's fight choreography in BB/TDK look weak. I believe in the Hermes Pan rule -- show the body and movement completely within the frame, and for a lot of WATCHMEN, that's what we got, gross or not.

(And I can't believe I'm defending the ultra-v here when I harshed on you way back for HOSTEL... but go know.)

It made absolutely no sense to have an orgasmic moment when Dan and Laurie fight side-by-side when that should be the charge they get while saving the folks from the burning building. It made them look sadistic when they should have developed tools and techniques to disarm that gang without killing many of them. It was overkill, gloriously done overkill, but overkill nevertheless.

Otherwise, Dreiberg was a fanboy writ large, so I liked seeing his awkwardness, which should have been carried through in that fight, so we would really glory when he put his Nite Owl II suit on. That's what Ackerman was missing, and Morgan not supported in having -- vulnerability *and* strength *and* a bit of psychosis that would be writ large in Ozymandias. The actor, unfortunately, is bland; Ozy should make The Monarch of the VENTURE BROTHERS look well-adjusted and rational, which is really frightening when I think about it.

2:17 PM  
Blogger DPS said...

Agreed. Although that orgasmic moment between Dan and Laurie IS straight out of the comic . . .

10:07 AM  
Blogger Bastard Keith said...

Well, I know I'm gonna take a cred-whupping for this one, but I thought it was fucking brilliant. Now, it must be said that although I worship the paper the novel pisses on, I've always been more of a film nerd than a comics nerd. So mileage varies accordingly. But myself and my girl came out of it dazed, delighted, exhausted and exhilarated. She called it "the Gone With the Wind of comic book movies". I think it's superb, a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic explosion of obsessively complex construction and utter clarity. It's Americana through the looking glass, pure jazz and fury (perhaps I think it's the JFK of its genre).

I loved Snyder's semi-super fights and graphic carnage, if only because he's making two very serious intellectual and aesthetic choices with them. First, he is drawing a hard line between what is "cool" and what is simply horrific. He then traipses over the line strategically at various points, keeping the audience off balance, seducing with the Hong Kong style fluidity of his action beats (for me, the HK style is the gold standard) before delivering a cringingly hurtful punchline (the compound fracture was so awful I could barely look). The second choice he makes there is to do with movies what Moore and Gibbons did with the novel: play games with preconceptions of the form. I honestly think this film does more to demolish the foundation of the superhero movie genre than Nolan's Batman films, both of which I fucking adore. Those fights are de rigeur for the sort of movie Watchmen is ripping up, and Snyder, for the first time in the mainstream history of the genre, takes it into Miike territory with the gore. Try taking your kids to this one, asshole parents. This is only a microcosmic demonstration of Snyder's accomplishment, but there you are.

Essentially, I agree with all the good shit everyone's saying about it and I raise them. I think this one's built to last. The only deficit for me is Akerman's stiffness, which is, in the end, not a killing blow.

I also (and this is where I catch a beating) think that Ozymandias is handled terrifically. For me, it's all in that first shot of him from the credits: standing in front of Studio 54, gazing through heavy-lidded eyes at the mere mortals around him, smiling with equal parts contempt and amusement. It's telling that the one he shakes hands with is David Bowie; there's no one in the vicinity of even remotely comparable intelligence and other-ness. If it gives him a sinister edge and, for some, blows the revelation of his villainy, I think it adds extra sauce to the revelation of his INTENT. This is how a super-intellect decides to help. By big-picturing it. By making a "good" decision he thinks we're all too weak to make. Contrary to popular opinion, I think Goode is a collossal win in the role. Is he Moore's Ozymandias? No. He's something else entirely, and a little bit more interesting and murky. I love the last image of him, alone in his smashed kingdom, accompanied by nothing but the strains of Mozart's Requiem.

Quite apart from the thrill of seeing a lot of the book I love on the big screen, I'm astonished by what Snyder has accomplished. Screw all that "Watchmen CAN'T be a movie, it has to be a mini-series" guff. Watchmen IS a movie. Its own movie. A meaty, smart, visceral, ugly, beautiful movie. I didn't sit there the whole time thinking about the shit Snyder left, or thinking "Well, for a MOVIE, this does it about as well as it could be done." I was just sort of blown away by the self-contained awesomeness of it. It's made for revisiting and rethinking. I bet it becomes the Blade Runner for today's young 'uns.

Too effusive? Maybe. Shmeh. But I cannot WAIT to see this son of a bitch again.

P.S. Loved the soundtrack, especially the carefully placed trio of Dylan songs. Hell, I even loved the Cohen track.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Thanks for your thoughts, guys! Well, yes, per our brief conversation about this earlier, Keith, we’re at about opposite ends of the spectrum on this one, which isn’t to say I hated the movie (I’d give it a B, B-).

And, hrrrrrm…I really think you’re making a few real leaps with Snydor making comments on violence with his fight sequences. They’re fetishistic, and very out of place. The whole idea (for both the film and comic) is that, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, these people in costumes are regular, mortal humans. There is no justification for Dan & Laurie to be ripping bones out of people’s arms, digging knives into jugular veins (in the alley scene), or even able to take on multiple convicts at once (in the prison scene). Based on his Dawn of the Dead remake and 300, there’s no indication that Snyder has an abhorrence for violence so much as he likes fetishizing it in a music-video-style fashion. Respectfully, I think the justification for the action sequences here (with a few exceptions) is a stretch.

This also undermines the idea that Rorschach is the psychopathic one, if everyone commits the same acts of graphic violence as he does.

(Yes, cgeye, I do find it amusing that the typical pro-violence person [me] and anti-violence person [you] are swapping roles here.)

Still despise the casting choice and direction with Ozymandias. I realize it was a bold choice to differ his personality from his comic book’s counterpoint, I just think it’s actively the wrong choice. A brief shot of him shaking hands with Bowie outside Studio 52 didn’t particularly give his character much new depth to me (especially when you consider he kept popping up at sporadic moments through the film to make him not a particular presence; every time he showed up, I went, “Oh, right. This creepy guy.”).

And yup, with the exception of the Dylan song, I thought many of the soundtrack choices were lazy and simple (I mean, “Flight of the Valkyries” for the Vietnam sequence? Seriously? Seriously?).

Now, I don’t mean to say I hated it. There’s still a lot going for it. It looks great. There are some amazing performances in it (as well as some terrible ones). They did an admirable job making a massive storyline a coherent(ish) 2.5 hour movies. But did I find this to be an awe-inspiring masterpiece? Hardly.

Will I see it again? Most likely. But not in the theatre. And I’m very curious to see the reported 3.5 hour version to be released on DVD.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Bastard Keith said...

Good thoughts, Jameson. I'll see your insight and raise you some bullish fanboy blathering. So here it is:

Of course, we'll never see eye to eye on Snyder's violence, but I think you're selling him short. In addition, I think Rorschach's violence is VERY different from Nite Owl and Spectre II's. Theirs relies on wit and situational improvisation, while Roschach's is blunt, cold, planned and scary. Which I loved.

As to the soundtrack, it's a Marmite matter. It either draws you into the fabric of it or tears you right out. It did the latter for you, and more's the pity. I thought it was all terrifically immersive. The panoply of it all. It's true that the Valkyries nod was arch, but a lot of the film is; hell, a lot of the source material is. To me it was a gesture in keeping with the Dr. Strangelove imagery in the war room (also divisive among viewers, but for me another sign of the film's voracious pop-culture repurposing).

As for Ozy, I think that the Bowie moment is purely incidental, but it's a little codex for the character. He's rocking a blatant Thin White Duke in this, every inch the cocaine-debonair Aryan Superman that Bowie was back in the day. Paranoid, brilliant and tweaked. For me, and for my date, it was a bullseye.

Still, this is a work that depends largely on the viewer and what they bring to it. As such, a lot of audiences won't meet it halfway, and those that do won't necessarily agree on it (I place you in the latter camp of course, James). I think it's kickass that we feel like talking about it. What was the last movie that did that? Hell, that even came close to meriting it?

3:38 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Excellent.

That it's initiating a decent amount of discussion (check out the podcast discussions on Slate.com, Salon.com and The Onion's avclub.com pages, to name a few) is a very decent point. It's kind of like that one reviewer's thoughts on reviewing the latest Guns N'Roses album: it's like reviewing a unicorn, i.e., are we impressed that it even exists at all? For the record, I am. And I am impressed that the changes and choices are not stupid and easy ones (my being on the fence with the soundtrack notwithstanding). In other words, it's clearly made by a filmmaker who's read the source material many many times, not a group of studio execs that have never heard of the book.

I'm also really curious to see what other people think who haven't read the book, because, as open-minded as I try to be, I can't help but compare when I'm watching (I don't think anyone who has read it can).

3:55 PM  
Anonymous Stephen Heskett said...

Just saw it tonight and I agree with you almost entirely. Although I think I'm more forgiving of the acting, I thought it was decent throughout (although your point about Ozymandias was something I hadn't noticed but you are dead-on correct about). I actually liked Cruddup's performance of a REALLY difficult, often un-actable part.

I also agree with you that the ending is better. Indeed, it just is. The alien squid is just a cool idea Moore came up with.

But I think the new ending changes what was being said about humanity. With Moore's ending the world came together in the face of a greater threat. In the film's ending they came together out of fear of God (Dr. Manhattan).

I'm not sure which is the better "message" but I feel they are fundamentally different.

9:52 PM  

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