Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Watchmen: Special Collector's Edition DVD (Japan Version): A Comic Book Movie Review

Watchmen: Special Collector's Edition DVD (Japan Version)
Studio: Paramount
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriter: David Hayter and Alex Tse
Cast: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson

Capsule Review: "Visionary" director Zack Snyder and company adapt the classic Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel that changed comics forever and moved literature itself into a new millennium of glorious achievement the likes of which were undreamed of by Miguel de Cervantes and Lady Murasaki. It affected even our lives. Verily, upon its initial publication Watchmen inaugurated the dawning of a new age of godlike humanity, a triumphant evolutionary leap in perception wrought by the single greatest artistic work ever produced. The movie version is enjoyable but slightly less successful at doing the same thing for the cinema.

Alan Moore's favorite movie of 2009 has finally come to Japan in DVD form. Its theatrical release here lasted... oh... about half the length of one showing. About an hour and fifteen minutes into the film, the manager of the one theater where it opened took one look at the empty seats and pulled the plug. Well, that solved my own little problem-- whether or not to spend 1800 yen on a movie that seems to have divided its viewers. Instead, I waited until fall and then whimsically paid 3170 yen for the DVD.

I'm not sure what the marketing people mean by "Special Collector's Edition," because I can't read Japanese. Is it somehow different than the regular release? The case contains two DVDs, and the cashier dug around in a cardboard box behind the register to find and present me with a cute little metal button I suppose I could pin to my leather superhero armor while assassinating John F. Kennedy from the grassy knoll. The main feature on disk 1 seems to be merely the theatrical cut of the film. No extended director's cut non-rated redux version. Disk 2 has a few mildly interesting documentary features-- all of which are annoyingly hyperbolic when talking about the graphic novel and the film's fidelity to it-- and the music video for My Chemical Romance's atrocious soundtrack version of the Bob Dylan chestnut "Desolation Row," minus the band shouting "Fuckin' right!" at each other in self-satisfied glee at having dug up and sexually violated Sid Vicious' corpse for money. They aimed for Sex Pistols and got Onanistic Firecrackers.

Oh, I'm supposed to be reviewing the movie? All right then, let's go! I began looking forward to seeing this film before its release because I'm one of those geeks who read Watchmen when it first came out and promptly lost my mind to its overall awesomeness. But then I made the mistake of watching Zack Snyder's 300 on TV and it killed my desire to ever see another Zack Snyder movie. 300 made me physically ill with visual bombast and glorification of the kind of hyper-masculinity formerly reserved only for elite branches of our armed forces and fraternity houses. In that sense, 300 would be homoerotic except the movie goes out of its way to depict its hatred and disgust with anything remotely gay, despite featuring as its protagonists the ancient Greeks for whom such things weren't particularly an issue. And someone could probably write a scholarly paper on its racial coding.

Yeah, no thanks.

But time has a way of dulling hurt and increasing curiosity so now I actually own a DVD of a Zack Snyder movie. I feel I've betrayed Alan Moore on so many levels I will never be able to fully make it up to him no matter how many copies of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier I buy. Sorry, Mr. Moore!

Because it largely eschews 300's pro-dood fanaticism, Snyder’s Watchmen surprised me, mostly on the strength of the performances in its three key roles. Jackie Earle Haley so nails his portrayal of psychotic "hero" Rorshach I doubt Watchmen could have been made without his participation. I also have this frightening idea some maladjusted fans have dual shrines to Haley's portrayal of an uncompromising nutcase and Heath Ledger's award-winning turn as sick, nihilistic Joker. He has that kind of twisted charisma and kids today are really disturbed what with all the MTV video awards and violent video games… and don’t even get me started on My Chemical Romance again.

Billy Crudup also finds an odd vulnerable nobility within the glowing blue god Dr. Manhattan; he conveys Dr. Manhattan’s detachment from humanity by giving him a gently distracted voice. Jeffery Dean Morgan plays reprehensible thug the Comedian with an amused cynicism and just enough lonely self-awareness you're almost-- but not quite—able to understand him if not forgive him for his crimes. He has the increasingly weighty presence of an athlete gone to seed.

Too bad the rest of the cast isn’t quite up to those standards. Poor wooden Malin Akerman comes off like she’s doing a Demi Moore-in-Striptease impression. And it's almost as if Matthew Goode intended to aid Snyder’s feature-length apology for the inadvertant racism of 300 by making his Ozymandias a goonish Nazi-- sneering most of his lines and walking around with an Adolf Hitler forelock but zero charisma-- rather than the avuncular, would-be Greek god of the comic. He's like the poor man's Eric Braeden. It’s far too easy, too intellectually lazy to "other" Nazis, those historical-monsters-turned-movie-bugbears. It's more difficult to look within ourselves and admit how our own do-gooder nature turns on itself and to deal with the attractiveness of bad ideas when they’re couched in “world saving” terms.

Snyder also betrays a certain unease when dealing with these emotional elements that gave Moore's story its genre-evolutionary power. It's as if he has an artistic block when it comes to believable conversations or emotions that don’t involve screaming, “THIS IS SPARTA!” His inability to elicit a convincing performance from Ackerman severely hamstrings all the emotional gymnastics the story puts her through, which defeats a lot of Watchmen’s purpose. Any David Fincher film can give you a similarly dark mood, and any Jackie Chan film can give you breath-taking action. What is it that Watchmen offers beyond that to recommend its existence? And the three sex scenes are... to put it kindly… laughably shitty beyond belief. In fact, they get progressively silly which in itself is kind of an impressive accomplishment since the first one features Ackerman sucking on a glowing blue finger while porn-breathily telling us it’s like “licking a battery.”

Where Snyder shows complete assurance and even earns a little bit of that "visionary" marketing adjective are the film's thrilling and sometimes disgustingly graphic action sequences. Snyder's fight scenes flow beautifully. With each action and result clearly set-up and then resolved emphatically. This is especially true in the film's opening battle between the Comedian and a shadowy assailant and the sequence later in the film where Nite Owl and Silk Spectre invade a prison during a riot. The two heroes move down a cellblock annihilating prisoner after prisoner in a ballet of violence. Superhero comic book pencillers who have a bit of trouble drawing clear action-to-action fight sequences should freeze-frame and study this sequence to learn how it's done. Action, reaction. Punch, kick, follow-through, result. Snyder frequently gives us wide shots, rather than the choppy close-cutting of Nolan's Batman movies. Nolan's violence is certainly visceral, but Snyder's is like dance. With broken bones and blood. It's as if Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly got addicted to kung-fu flicks.

You know, I kind of wish Snyder would do a remake of West Side Story. Imagine his putting this kinetic expertise to use on those classic Jerome Robbins dance sequences. Only he’d need to get Ang Lee or someone similar to handle all the dramatic, romance stuff. Could be quite a collaboration. Ah, scratch that. Ang Lee could do the whole thing by himself and it would probably work just as well. But I definitely would love to see Snyder do something outside his comfort zone using some of these techniques.

Like most comic geeks, I find it impossible not to watch Watchmen the movie and not compare it to Watchmen the book. Tasha Robinson at the Onion A/V Club has already done a point-by-point breakdown the similarities and differences with special insight into some of the specific thematic breaks between the movie and the novel, so I won't do that. I don't have enough space or time here!

I do want to address a few things, though, because I'm a prolix bastard at heart. Watchmen the comic not only offers up a ripping story that's part heroics, part myth, part psychological portrait of a bunch of damned souls and also serves as a metafictional critique of superhero comics themselves. Using the comic book format itself-- exemplified best by artist Dave Gibbon's timelessly clean art and adherence to the traditional three-tier panel page format-- Moore uses the very idea of a comic book to look at the pop culture mythology of Superman, Batman and the rest by grafting real world neuroses and sexual twists onto them, the ones only subtextual in more conventional comics at the time. In Moore's fictional world, superheroes are as ultimately superfluous to fixing their society as the superhero comic books and their gaudy "punch it, that'll fix it" morality are in dealing with the real world's problems.

Snyder really has no way to match this in his movie because as a medium film is artistically more mature than comic books and as a genre superhero movies haven’t yet established themselves in our cultural consciousness. More people may believe Batman to be Christian Slater but it's the two-dimensional comic book version that's embedded in our collective pop mythos. Moore and Gibbons also can get away with wrapping their cerebral, novelistic approach to character and motivation in a lot of crazy, garish notions we comic book readers accept mostly without question (not that we don't make fun of these conventions as well) within the four-color world of the printed page. But these same elements don't quite work in live action, even if Snyder wisely changes the one that might have been the most objectionable.

And while Moore's story gives us a more sophisticatedly ambivalent view of the central conceit of all superhero comics and thoroughly subverts it throughout-- this incredibly silly idea the world can be improved by brawny men and sexy women in colorful tights punching the shit out of evil-- Snyder's version ultimately favors funny book vigilantism. In a stunted, adolescent way, it is quite attractive but it strips the story of some of its maturity. Which, if I recall correctly, was one of the Watchmen comic's strong literary selling points. Here is where the movie becomes regressive; Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight deals much more effectively and definitively with a similar theme. Maybe choosing My Chemical Romance and their overblown and hamfisted musical stylings as the movie's soundtrack coda seals the deal.

Actually, almost all of the music in this movie is poorly chosen and presented, other than the “Times They Are A-Changin’” credits montage which is all kinds of fun and Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” which comes at the same point in the movie it’s referenced in the book. But that one was a gimme via Moore, so no credit, Mr. Snyder. Hendrix knew how to cover a song. The credits roll on this movie and we get the smirky, plodding...

Jeez, I just can’t get over that My Chemical Romance, can I? It’s like I have some kind of personal bone to pick with them or something.

Ultimately, we're left with an exciting, visually-inventive action flick that manages to be somewhat more cerebral than either Fantastic Four film or the X-Men series but not up to the standards of the new Batman flicks, with some effective performances and impressively kinetic fight sequences. Unfortunately, it’s going to suffer by comparison because it’s based on such a seminal work. As such, it’s an adequate rendering of the graphic novel, slavishly faithful in some respects down to the actual dialogue and imagery, but altered in some ways that seem to suggest Snyder read a different Watchmen than the one I did. Which is fair enough; it’s his adaptation after all. It’s just that he ends up championing a lot of the things the book actively questioned. And while Snyder gets his film across successfully and entertainingly, it doesn't quite take the nascent superhero film genre to the same exalted places the Watchmen novel took comics.

Not that we can fault the movie for failing to reinvent cinema the way Watchmen supposedly reinvented American comics. Although come to think of it, Moore's right-- the big comic companies for the most part have never followed-through on Watchmen's shining moment. The best they've been able to do is repeat its least interesting elements ad nauseum and with the law of diminishing returns in full effect.

Marvels? Kingdom Come? Identity Crisis? Since I’m always given a choice, I'd rather watch this movie again. I wonder what Dr. Manhattan would say about that.

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