RIORI Redux: Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” Revisited



The Players…

Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Billy Crudup, Jeffery Dean Morgan and Matthew Goode.


The Story…

Adapted from comic laureate Alan Moore’s landmark miniseries, the events that transpire after a superhero is murdered in an alternate universe circa 1985 lead a band of once famed costumed avengers—now outlaws—to solve the mystery. However this is no mere murder, regardless of the victim. There are far more sinister forces at work shadowing this mystery, and very little of it has to do with some dead guy wearing a costume. And a smiley face button.


The Rant (2013)

When I was a pup, I picked up the first ish of Watchmen. Didn’t get it. I guess I was not the target audience. Sold the thing for five bucks. This was 1986 dollars. I was too young to know the oys and joys of beer, drugs and sex. I guess I was a wastrel when it came to comics as well. Who’s the latest X-Man? What’s Spidey up to? What’s sex? They do what? To each other? Eewww.

Ha. Since then, I’ve grown up. Sort of. Through waste and disgrace I now have all 12 issues of Watchmen hermetically sealed in a binder somewhere. First issues. Ugh, the geekiness of it all. Am I boasting? F*ck yeah I am.

So when the whirling dervish that is Zack Snyder got the green light to tackle a full-flung take on the mini-series (which had been languishing in production hell for lifetimes) and plaster it to the silver screen, a million comic geeks over were harping about either two things: this had better work or this ain’t gonna work.

And here I am to declare the results in a sober, reserved geeky mindset. Keep in mind, I’ve been a movie nut well before there were ever comic book movies…

Where to start?

Okay, the plot. It’s painfully simple, right? Painfully simple, which is all but this comic series and ensuing film is. Funny thing is it’s almost impossible to give too much away about the movie for how dense it is for its 2 hour 45 minute running time. I’m actually amazed the studio heads and/or editors allowed this length. Then again, I doubt a movie could do the comic book justice in only 90 minutes. The book and the film are that inscrutable.

My take on certain points of the film is cursory at best, because there is a sickening amount of details crammed into the near three-hour running time. I’ll try to make this work. Remember, I’m not a professional movie critic. Just a loudmouth with a blog.

At its core, Watchmen is a murder mystery. All the allegory and satire is just applesauce. Very good applesauce, mind you. But try telling a neophyte the plot of Watchmen without tying up your tongue and his mind. Right.

There is a lot more going on here than my perfunctory synopsis the story. I can’t explain it all, and that is what is the most damning about this film adaptation. There is too much going on. Props for Snyder trying his hand at it. He did what no other director managed to do thus far. He managed to do what Terry Gilliam, David Hayter, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass could not. He got it on film. Not only that, but he captured the spirit of the comic quite well, if not the complexity.

There is a holy host of touches that make this movie work. The fact things work at all is practically a miracle. It feels like Snyder got into most of the heads of the readers of the series and tried to make celluloid flesh out of what the mind’s ear heard and of what the imagination piqued.

First of all, the voices are important. It’s hard to believe that the dulcet voice of Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan) that assured us for everything else, there’s MasterCard would be such an eerie complement to the omnipotent Doctor. There’s a wistful innocence and dare I say pity in Crudup’s performance that marshals up emotions that we as the audience should have for him: pity and awe. On the flipside, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach snarl was dead on for my mind’s ear. The voice of a demented, so-called hero. The monologue in the prison interview was especially effective. The dialogue was tight and didn’t seem forced or purple, which could be construed that way if delivered by a different actor.

Along with the voices was the music, especially the now-infamous Leonard Cohen romance scene. Some of these songs also appeared in the miniseries proper, also cued up and overlapped as scenes in the book as well as the screen translation. It’s nice to know the writers did their homework. Then again, all that homework might’ve hurt the film some. It’s always difficult to translate a book into a movie. Something’s always going to be either padded or jettisoned (for Watchmen it was the whole “Black Freighter” subplot, which was later and adapted for a straight-to-DVD release). But scenarists Hayter and Tse may have adhered too closely to the source material, not leaving a lot of room for cinematic interpretation. It’s one thing to see the images leap onto the screen. It’s another to have to keep turning the pages.

The sets reflect the hard, colorful angles of the nine panel pages of the original book. Everything sort of takes a kind of surrealist focus, as if to remind the audience that this is—was—not the 1985 you knew. You get the feeling that despite the heavy-handedness of the source material, Snyder’s having a lot of fun making the film. Granted the fun is dark and sometimes demented, but let’s face the truth: sometimes the best kind of fun is dangerous.

I gave up following the movie frame-by-frame along with the original comics I cracked out for the occasion by the third act. Biggest carp? The ending was racist Hollywood, and with that a lot of other stray thoughts clutter up my mind. Being beaten over the head with exacting efforts can leave one woozy.

Do any of these points sell the film for people who’ve never read the comics? Probably not. They are but touchstones of a valiant effort to bring one of the most complex, dense and literate comic books to the screen. So…


Rant Redux (2019)…

Again, I was surprised that I didn’t sound so bloated as I thought. Being a comic book fan I am one of a few individuals that are given a wide berth when it comes to their fetishes (eg: comic geeks, pro wrestling fans, CosPlayers, pedophiles, etc). Meaning I’m faced with a certain degrees of bemusement and “Sir, this an Arby’s” when it comes to my—and others—blathering on about their manic, fevered obsession over the machinations, codex and philosophy about a fictional universe that admittedly stinks to high Heaven of life arrest and taking up indefinite residence in their folks’ basement. Fantasy, exactly. Glad you’re following along.

One of the major achievements of Watchmen I glanced upon was that the dang film ever got made. With Zack Snyder at the helm, of all people. I say that based on past becomes prologue over the years here at RIORI. Snyder is the most scrutinized director here, which says something. Not that all his films are lame (Sucker Punch  was a fine exception), but most are in some way, bland, ethereal and…well, assuredly mediocre passing entertainment. Over the years here at RIORI Snyder’s aforementioned Sucker Punch, his take on Watchmen and Man Of Steel have gone under the microscope, and if The Standard doesn’t change (it won’t) we’re gonna see a lot of more of Snyder’s craft end up here unless his style changes (it won’t).

Still Snyder’s taste for spectacle over craftsmanship suited the abstract Watchmen well enough even I was surprised—surprised the comic series ever made the leap to cinema at all. In the endgame it was a herculean task to rescue Alan Moore’s magnum opus from infinite Production Hell. Watchmen was optioned back in 1986, the year the comic was released and didn’t hit the theaters until over 20 years later. The main reason why it took so long is because Fox failed to secure a director. Those names I mentioned above? All were qualified for the job as far as I was concerned; they could all tackle such a recondite, culty, socio-conscious detective story out of a comic book, before God. But I don’t think seeking the right director was what Fox (later Warner Brothers and later Paramount and even later Warner Brothers) found tricky.

It was the source material. Not so much it being sourced from a vital, however still obscure comic book, no. And not exactly what the plot of the comic book was, either. I feel that the source material’s sophistication and an execution would not have been taken seriously, or at least the studios defiantly did not understand the opportunity because—

*drum roll and drop the mic*

it came from a friggin’ comic book. Up until 1986, the only comic book hero to grace the silver screen was Superman, his cinematic exploits couched firmly in action and fantasy suitable for all ages. What Moore and Gibbons had cooked up was topical, complex, loaded with social commentary, satire and major head-scratching  in equal measures. This was a comic book? Where are the capes,? Joel Silver cried. Why, daddy why?

Yep, believe or not Hollywierd. And they shuffled the option around and around like a hot potato with tertiary syphiliis, too hot for any conventional studio at the time to touch. The aging powers that be deemed Watchmen unfilmable (not out loud) and down to the Seventh Level the script was laid dormant for over two decades. The party line goes that Watchmen was never picked up in a timely fashion for myriad of reasons: all the usual Hollywood folderol. Budget. Casting. Revolving door of perspective directors. Rewrites. Budget. “Creative differences,” and last of all budget.

To wit I say: hogwash. Zack Snyder made the impossible possible and got Watchmen to theaters. Better late than never, especially up against the dimwitted myopia studios have “unfilmable books” (read: return on investment) been regarded, and often incorrectly. If Kubrick could get A Clockwork Orange and Lolita—of all books—to film, one would be hard-pressed to ask, “Hey. What about that Miracle Man guy?” And for better or worse, master weird guy David Lynch got a crack at Dune (much to author Frank Herbert’s dismay. I think the fiasco contributed to his death a year after release. That and the cancer, but the cancer came after the movie, so hmmm). Naked Lunch got the movie treatment, ‘tho I’m still not sure why. Gonzo journalistic epic Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson directed by (once tapped, erstwhile director of Watchmen) Terry Gilliam to good effect. And for some other whacked out reason (other than a bet) Steve Coogan tried his hand a Tristam Shandy but shouldn’t have.

This brings me back to my point: my reluctant praise for Snyder full pulling off the greatest jewel heist in comic book movie history. It was Alan Moore’s K2, and Snyder planted a flag at the summit, for better to worse. I still only claim that because of course the final product could’ve been better, but most audiences’ attention spans with movies have been trained to be reliable only up to 100 minutes. Watchmen was almost three hours long and even within that “restricted” boundary Snyder still did  the best he could with the cards dealt him.

And Snyder did yeoman’s work. Watchmen the movie was acceptable and not uninteresting. All that made a good movie good were in place: good story, decent acting, cool action, pacing, what have you. It was serviceable to the masses and frustrating for the fanboys (like me). But one a final, honorable note Snyder made his mark with graphic spectacle. His version of Day Of The Dead and his breakthrough 300 (technically another epic culled from a graphic novel rather than historical record) with unabashed spectacle. That signature of spectacle sticks around in Watchmen, but this time out Snyder brought out the CGI fireworks and martial arts to accentuate plot points, not as wallpaper (think the birth of Dr Manhattan or the “foreplay” between Nite Owl and the Silk Spectre). I appreciated that; he let the story ride on without a lot of naive audience appealing conflagration for the sake of eyewash. How the studio must’ve hated him for it in a “basic comic book” movie.

Too bad the takeaway proved him wrong. Chin up, Zack. Later on you’ll be back on par soiling Superman’s cape and f*cking up the non-existent DC Cinematic Universe with such joie de vivre.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: Rent it. It’s a good movie, even if it was only made against all odds. Will it please fanboys? Hells no. Is it a cool murder mystery? Yep. Erm…sue me.


Next Installment…

I take another Drive with Ryan Gosling as my murderous Uber. This was the first movie I watched based on someone’s recommendation. Said recommendation was from the unofficial co-founder of RIORI, the mischievous Jordan. He was upset that I didn’t like Drive. Maybe this time around I won’t be sippin’ on the sizzup for a less hazy judgment. Maybe.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 52: Ryan Murphy’s “Eat Pray Love” (2010)


Eat Pray Love


The Players…

Julia Roberts, with James Franco, Javier Bardem, Viola Davis, Billy Crudup, Richard Jenkins, Sophie Thompson, Luca Argentero and Gita Reddy (just because).


The Story…

Based on the memoir of the same name, Liz dumps her immature husband in search of truth and fun. Go globetrotting to the corners of the Earth to “find herself,” whatever that means anymore.

However we all know that to know ourselves, the truth lies within and yadda yadda yadda. Who wants gelato?


The Rant…

We’ve all made bad choices.

Sticking with a career we hate. Dropping out of school. Mixed up in a sh*tty relationship that goes on too long. That tribal tat on your face. Writing a blog about mediocre movies. What have you. Life’s filled with bad choices, as if to offset the positive ones. Funny thing that, good choices are their own reward, but seldom immediate. Chances are you didn’t realize you made one until well into the positive circumstances said choice provided. Like until you get a promotion, or see your kid graduate from college, or finally score that top 10 hit. Stuff like that takes some time to achieve, but all the sweeter with the waiting.

Bad choices? Ah. A bit more slippery.

I’d like to think most folks who find themselves in an existential pickle kinda knew what they were signing up for, and the throughput arrives rather quickly. Sometimes not even unexpectedly. For example you might’ve gotten hints at the outset your new girlfriend might have some daddy issues based on all the portraits of him scattered around her apartment. All of them of him glaring at the lens. Maybe you keep finding cashing missing from your wallet, a reflection of how often your kid goes missing, usually to the neighbors’ garage. You know, the one with three angry pitbulls tied to a semi-truck hub in the fenced off, neglected, dirt patch of a backyard. Or perhaps when your boss calls you into the office one day after sick leave and politely, but forcefully, requests you tell him what meds you’re on (true story!).

An unhealthy dose of denial precludes the slipperiness. Those nagging doubts you squeeze into the basement of your cerebrum. The mounting evidence of dishevelment that you keep excusing. That rattlesnake in your bed you woke up to. Twice. Nah, none of this can be happening. Roadbumps along the road of life these are. Hey, where’s my wallet?

If you’re a thinking person, you may eventually realize you’re embedded in a sh*tstorm of your own making through poor decisions. That it’ll be a hard way out, if you ever want out. Truth ultimately wins out though, and it’s yours to behold. Now there’s this man in the mirror calling, and you’d wish to put him on hold. Indefinitely.

This is part of the lesson where you feel you need to perform some dreaded “soul searching.” You wake up one morning and make a new choice: take stock of your life. Might be a bad choice again, the desire to ask yourself, “What went wrong?” Or, “What did I do to deserve this?” Or most likely, “What do I do now? Where do I go from here?”

That’s easy: escape. Leave it all behind and start over somewhere else. Sure. That’s the ticket. Pull up stakes and start a new life, with or without the witness relocation program. Lots of people dissatisfied with their station in life consider travel. Get away from it all, literally. But there are roadblocks. Finances, for one. You’re tied to that sh*tty job, therefore the finance thing keeps churning. Dump the spouse and/or kids? Not happening…yet. You have all these anchors, all of them feeding into if not cementing your crummy, soul-crushing, confusing life. The life you so desperately want to escape. Quite the conundrum.

So, travel. Imagine if, if you had the wherewithal to set foot out of the nest. Get miles, maybe countries away from your troubles. Experience cultures alien to your own. Meet people totally unlike anyone in your craptastic circle of friends. Hell, get a decent meal instead of those endless Lean Cuisines choking up your freezer. But pause, this might just be a case of the grass being greener. Face it, it’s hard to separate yourself from your lousy life decisions when anything, anywhere else would be better than here.

Your life—the life you wished you had before the fallout of your own design—might be out there waiting for you to catch up. It’s a scary prospect however to make that leap into the unknown. As much as you might hate the stupid decisions that have held you down, it’s familiar. You (think you) have control of your situation, and for all its flaws it’s comfortable.

You gotta get out of that comfort zone. Ain’t done you much good, has it? So yeah, leave. Leave it all behind. Find yourself. All over again. Make this choice a good one. But be careful, in your goal of learning who you once were and what could be, you might not like what you find.

Or maybe not…


Liz Gilbert (Roberts) is an esteemed, successful travel writer. She’s in a nice marriage with Stephen (Crudup), her slightly petulant husband. Her apartment is perfect, complete with the kitchen of her dreams. Money in the bank. Reputation impeccable within the writing community. Wanting for nothing.

Then how come Liz is miserable?

She knows she has the ideal, cosmopolitan life. Why should she be miserable? Well, she’s a travel writer and for far too long Liz got mixed up in setting down roots in a world that doesn’t fit. So she decides to make some very rational, practical decisions to turn things around.

Divorce Stephen. Shack up with hot, young aspiring actor David (Franco) to shake away the divorce blues. Listen to her best buddy Delia’s (Davis) advice and get off her ass, go visit the world again. This time minus any writing assignments. Check out Italy, India and Bali. Soak up some culture. Find a guru. Find a nice guy whose not obsessed with tomorrow.

Get a good meal for f*ck’s sake…


Christ, this one was dreadful.

Again, showing my hand, but man.

Hey, I like TV travelogues. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and A Cook’s TourNational Geographic ExplorerThe Jeff Corwin Experience. Anything about places and people and things that if I had the time and money I’d go there in a hot minute. But I’m broke, haven’t accrued enough frequent flyer miles and can only speak three languages: American, Canadian and British. That and I hate jet lag.

I figured that based on my passive-aggresive wanderlust and wishing I was wrestling with giant frogs in the Yucatan and later chowing down on Montreal poutine slathered with salsa and mushrooms Eat Pray Love would be right up my alley as well as conveniently following The Standard. Heck, the movie was based on the best-selling, real life memoir by the actual Liz Gilbert. She lived what she wrote about, after all. And this movie adaptation starred America’s reliable sweetheart Julia Roberts! What could go wrong?

Right. Plenty.

I’m going to try, try not to slam Eat Pray Love into the dirt too hard. I understand it is my custom to get into a frothing frenzy here at RIORI when I watch a really crappy film. The kind you feel cheated for having seen, and I can’t remember the last time I took apart some mediocre movie here that didn’t enrage me in the last month or so (I have a lot of imaginary ticket stubs to throw in the faces of a lot of imaginary ushers). No. I’m going to try to be methodical in my analysis of Eat‘s pitfalls with a minimum of bile.

Why? Because this movie was a sad waste of potential. It had the air of doing the right thing, but its execution and overall tenor was so treacly, sour and worst of all boring (I know, how can a travelogue be boring?). It could have been a lot better. Obviously so.

Eat‘s biggest crime was that it was derivative. Very derivative. The wifey sat down with me to watch the thing for the first half hour. She gave up in disgust and stomped out of the room. She’s the one who labeled the movie derivative. After 30 minutes, and she almost never watches the movies I destroy with me for any appreciable amount of time (half hour or no). She found the first half hour of Eat lame, stupid and—you guessed it—derivative. She was quite correct, and I reached the same correct conclusion 90-plus minutes later. Well, truth be told, it took me over three hours to watch the thing in full. My attention kept wandering, and the viewing was interspersed with way too many cigarette, snack and bathroom breaks. Whether I needed them or not. I rationalized I needed them to get through the drudgery.

Sorry. Getting bitter. But disappointing movies do that to me. Now let’s get technical.

When I—she—said Eat was derivative here’s what the vibe was. Well after that crucial half hour mark, yet well-established within those 30 minutes there was a stink of Hollywood tampering. I’m not talking about director Murphy taking a lot of liberties with the source material. I never read the book myself, but I knew it was a hot ticket at Barnes & Noble since the last Ice Age, apparently something sweating to be made into a movie or TV series or video game or something. Hollywood apparently was champing at the bit. Taking any liberties here was most likely a tricky prospect at best (where was Liz gonna go first? Venus?). Still, I smelled that a travel movie would be more about the destination, and not the traveller. I mean, Bourdain made his shows about the places and people with him just as a witness. All he added was snarky commentary and cursory explanations about cultural and historical hot points. It wasn’t him yammering on and on and on about himself; the places he visited did the talking.

Murphy sure didn’t take hints from Bourdain. More like he took orders from the studio for Eat. Marching orders.

Eat may have been about Liz’ adventures, but sure as sh*t is wasn’t about Liz. At least not directly. Here’s where the derivations commenced. Dissatisfied woman looking down the barrel of a mid-life crisis. Looking in the mirror and asking where her dreams went. Burns old life to the ground. Shacks up with various men of vitality (through her rosey lenses). Reasserts who she is via escape. Start over elsewhere in unfamiliar climes of her dreams in search of happily ever. As Bourdain quoted, “Go bamboo.”

Sigh.

The whole “fish out of water” bit has been done to death ten times over, and it ain’t any better for the eleventh time. Liz as the innocent abroad is a character so tired it went to bed and tossed the alarm clock in the toilet years ago. Recalling the whole “let the pictures do the talking” aesthetic when doing a travelogue, it’s never the destination but the journey. Everything, everything in Eat is punctuated by Liz’ wonder, angst, fears and waaay too much about her and her anxieties. The real Liz’ story is probably just as personal, but well lacking on her focus on…her. The places she went are the stars of the show I’ll bet. Her reflecting on the when and where is where we learn who Liz is and maybe was. Felt like Murphy deemed this as too heady and made Roberts the absolute center of her travels.

If this was the case (and it sure tasted that way) then our avatar Roberts was not invested in her role. What’s made Roberts a go-to actress for the past quarter century is her skill at conveying both humor well-paired with vulnerability. This holds true as far back as Pretty Woman well into Notting Hill and even her other biopic Erin Brockovich, of which she won an award. There’s a passive self-consciousness in her selected roles. Passive. Her Liz is so painfully self-aware there is no charm. At the outset our heroine both equally, stereotypically fragile and resolved. Cut and dried. There is no humor, at least nothing that sticks. There is no subtlety. Roberts’ Liz is just going through the motions, motions completely out of synch with a travel movie about self-discovery. It’s understood that people travel to get out of their comfort zone and maybe learn something about themselves in the process. Liz’ globetrotting in Eat is rote; it is precisely what audiences are supposed to expect. It is what Murphy’s vision is. It is connect the dots. It is not about the journey, it is about Liz. And only Liz. Roberts is completely reactive in Eat and her signature fragile charm is all but absent. She’s a cipher for a thousand dissatisfied housewives, passport at the ready or no. Her acting is shameful here. Roberts has a lot of strong, emotional attributes. Being willowy is not one of them.

Since Roberts’ failings as she was directed really bogged down the film there must be a counterbalance. Despite Murphy’s style reeking of hackwork, a great deal of Eat‘s technical execution was quite good. There was a lot of what I call rolling camera work. You know, trying to maximize space with great cinematography, thereby essential to tell the story beyond the story. Remember Eat is a story of exploration, be it within and without. Since Liz is bounding around the globe trying to find her own private Shangri-La we better f*cking get eyeballs full of expansive swaths of local color. The rolling camera work succeeds. Everything feels intimate yet wide. There’s plenty of time allowed to absorb where Liz is and what she sees. It’s the only aspect of a travel story where the place outshines the traveler, and it makes for a pretty picture. But just that. Granted Roberts’ performance unfortunately enhances this effect, but without her indifferent screen presence this effect wouldn’t have worked as well. Odd really. I took what I could get here.

Still Eat was derivative, it’s biggest sin. Murphy either dropped the plot (literally) or was charmed by the producers holding the pennies (one of whom was Brad Pitt, BTW. Does he really need more cred by now?) to make a “safer” picture. At any rate, Eat‘s end-run was dull and predictable, overly so. We’re even talking right down to Liz REDACTED, thereby turning her life around. Such a trope is f*cking stale, and derivative of a million “get away from it all” stories. A movie about world travel? How could that be boring? Well, it could’ve been a lot more interesting if Eat didn’t play out so safe. By safe I mean tepid, sappy and a healthy dose of pandering to Middle American audiences. Did I mention the pacing was like syrup? Again, stoning offense for a travelogue; it’s all about forward motion in the final analysis.

Eat was intermittently interesting, if not entertaining. When Liz wasn’t moping about, Murphy’s limited skills did indeed shine. He had a keen eye for capturing the vibrance of places afar for us poor, myopic American schlubs stuck in the McDonald’s drive-thru queue. But the other side of the coin demanded so many eye-rolls. At his hand, Eat‘s potential to be truly eye popping was hampered by his moving Roberts from position to position and insist the throughput was held exclusively in her eyes. Very little reflection, precious little. At least anything convincing, therefore meaningful.

In conclusion Eat was a drag, and claiming also a big let-down (if regarding this installment, quite the truism). It was boring. It lost the plot, well before one got established. I hope the real Liz Gilbert was well compensated for the probable bastardization of her beloved, best-selling book. So much potential was wasted here. So much. I know I said earlier I’d keep the ire to a minimum, and I’d like to believe me being clinical here achieved that. Still Eat was the kind of movie I’d be screaming in tongues about with paroxysms of frustration and where the f*ck the last 2 hours went. Longer including a pack of smokes, many beers, a ham sandwich and a small load of laundry. My attention was not held.

That being said, I think I’ll get back to polishing some mirrors, ask myself why I got that tribal tat back in the 90s and locate some really decent pasta. Barring watching a decent movie, what else is there?

Getting my wallet away from those pitbulls. That’s what.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. F*cking frustrating. Anathema to any proper tale of travel, not to mention the “Cinderella story” interwoven into the traveling fabric. Any smart person will hate this movie. There. There’s the bile.


Stray Observations…

  • “You wanted that toaster!”
  • Ever wonder if Roberts gets smile cramps?
  • “Do you need a Xanax?” “Always.”
  • First time I ever watched a movie without watching it. Sandwiches can’t make themselves.
  • “She thinks I changed my name to ‘Motherf*cker’.” Had to laugh at that.
  • Jenkins’ soliloquy is the best acting in the entire film.
  • “Do you always talk in bumper sticker?”
  • However cheesy, Liz’ adventures in Rome sure looked appealing.
  • “My place.”
  • Who thinks the real Liz Gilbert should be given her own show on the Travel Channel? Hands?
  • “See you later, alligator.”

Next Installment…

Like all good illusionists declare, “Now You See Me, now you don’t.” Let’s hope it’s not how I may feel about this movie.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 1: Alison Maclean’s “Jesus’ Son” (2000)


Image


The Players…

Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Denis Leary, Jack Black, Dennis Hopper and Holly Hunter.


The Story…

FH is a well-meaning drug addict who stumbles backward into redemption. We’re not even close to talking about a twelve-step here. Amid his life’s wreckage of addiction and co-dependency, a near-fatal car crash and a chance to save a child’s life force FH to examine his existence and its meaning, if there’s anything to find at all.


The Rant…

Hey! So begins Volume Two of Rent It Or Relent It! This week’s entry is the first one designed with this blog in mind. No repaginating needed! Yeah, I know. Not kind of a big deal. I just figured I’d mention it since we’re starting over with “Installment 1” again and I didn’t want no confusion. I hear ya. When Marvel Comics does this kind of thing, it irritates me, too. So let’s just move along, shall we…?

What, another precious indie film? Hey, in case you hadn’t noticed, these little buggers have been popping up lately all over movieland, like mushrooms on cow turds. The fun mushrooms, mind you. And like those funky beauties, such small budget, little known actor, inscrutably scripted movies can either mess with your mind or alter your perception, in any order.

Drug allusions aside (yes, that was what they were), it’s only proper that we delve into a film about substance abuse. On the other side of the screen, dummy. Now put down the beer bong and listen up. Why proper? These flicks seldom make much coin at the box office. That’s usually because no one shows up to see them. The Standard dictates the reception had to either be tepid or outright hostile. I never said you’d ever had to hear of the damned movie (please refer to the The Squid And The Whale entry for a good example. Uh, the only example I got actually).

That kinda brings me to a point. I used to be a deejay at our local community radio station and NPR affiliate (BTW, we preferred to call ourselves “programmers” since deejay has either become trite or an epithet for the mixmasters at rave-ups, but that’s for another day). With NPR came their news programs, human-interest stories and the like. There were often movie reviews and interviews with the stars of the reviewed movie. That’s where I heard about The Squid and the Whale and also Jesus’ Son. Jeff Daniels and Billy Crudup were interviewed respectively. After listening to these shows (and this was years before weblogs came to the fore) I got to wondering, “Who’s this for?”

The “who” in question was the target audience. NPR listeners are a cagey lot. They’re not usually the first to bow to the will of pop culture. I figured if a movie got press on NPR, it was: a) of some good critical repute; b) going to get limited release, and/or; c) was made with built-in obscurity in mind. I suspected Jesus’ Son wasn’t intended to be a big release movie. Being affiliated with part of the NPR audience, I assumed this movie would’ve naturally appealed to my and others’ ersatz hipster pretensions.

I think I was looking too hard…


FH (Crudup, whose character’s name is oddly never mentioned in the film) is a slow-witted man-child seemingly drifting through life, love and addiction. Never one to stay in one place too long, nor does he seem aware that he’s doing it, FH touches hands of everyone he meets in a languid, faraway notion. We’re not tugging heartstrings here; FH is a buffoon and overall irritant. And he’s not your typical poster child for decrying drug use. He’s kind of just…there.

Anyway, amid all the random people he bumps into and scrapes he gets into, he does find love in the form of somewhat unstable Michelle (Morton), an erratic party girl with a healthy smack addiction that FH immediately takes a shine to. Naturally in love, he engages in the habits of heroin shooting and pill popping that Michelle is hip to, and becomes readily addicted to addiction and all the pitfalls that accompany it.

Michelle drifts in and out of his life (or perhaps the other way around) while FH follows a scenic and winding road through perdition by ways of keeping his multiple habits going. Whether he’s deconstructing homes with buddy Wayne (Leary) for scrap to sell for dope money, working as an orderly with whack job Georgie (Black) for ready access to pills, or finding redemption in an old age home with fragile widow Mira (Hunter), FH is seemingly doomed to be rudderless. He’ll just keep on wandering, leading a terminal existential crisis while never being released from adolescence. Or truly free from chemical dependency…


Huh. Sounds like the story would appeal to the NPR crowd. Too bad it was a load of drivel.

Our hero Crudup possesses the clear eyes and rubbery face of an adolescent. The awkward innocent to all the events that fall at his feet. He’s never proactive. This breaks a principal tenet of story: you can’t have heroes being acted on all the time to capture either sympathy and/or attention. Maybe this was what the director was intending, but 90 minutes of it was really grating.

Heroes are supposed to wade through the plot for us; take us on their journey. Problem: there was no plot. Jesus’ Son was nothing more than a series of vignettes. Again, more off-kilter episodes that FH just wanders into following the direction of addiction (which was mostly a pretty tame portrayal) wherever it may take him. Jesus’ Son is the flipside of the grimy, urban drug drama Panic In Needle Park. Where that movie was harrowing and unlikeable in a gripping way, Son plays out like Forrest Gump on smack. It was more or less a comical take on substance abuse, and not with a whit of irony.

Speaking of irony, only not really, why was Jack Black in this movie? I know it was another non-plot point of FH’s quest for drugs, and Black is notorious as an amped up clown in his roles, but never have I seen him so shoehorned into a character that tries to lean on his strengths as a comic actor in such an inappropriate manner. Watching the movie you expected him to bust out with air guitar, which would’ve been apropos of anything and yet you’d expect it. It was another lull in the movie’s meandering pace.

Before I overload the bitch switch, there were several highlights that just couldn’t be ignored in the film. Shot in muted colors, Son had a real 70’s feel to it, appropriate because of the timeline. There was a gritty, earth tone hue to the set and it coaxed out a very laidback vibe that married well to the narrative, such as it was. Another great visual aspect was the make-up job. For such a slanted comic affair on drug use, the etchings of FH’s rubbery face over what felt like months highlighted his progression into substance abuse with disturbing accuracy.

The movie is kinda rife with cameos, and the best performance was the one delivered by Dennis Hopper. Ironic that one of cinema’s most offbeat, unhinged personalities provided a little stability in an otherwise frayed film. He only had like 12 minutes of screen time, but he made them the most memorable. Almost always a gold star for Hopper.

Apart from all that, there wasn’t much to like about this movie. It really tried my patience. Crudup isn’t much of a leading man, and his dopey (ha!) character FH was neither endearing nor sympathetic. He’s just a wistful moron, even more so when he kicks his drug habit. His interactions with his fellow cast members lacked chemistry, and the results were a pretty wooden affair. The pacing, although good, was too slipshod to hold my attention. Don’t get me started on the narrative flow. The whole mishmash caused me to drift in and out of the story, not unlike FH’s journey.

Oh well. To be perfectly honest, despite what I’ve written about,  I really don’t remember a lot of this movie. I used to suffer from this malady due to watching movies drunk, and only having a passing notion to what I thought I had seen. Jesus’ Son was accompanied only by Snapple, and it didn’t stick so well either. I guess I may have to give up reviewing indie films for this blog. They only scratch the surface of The Standard anyway, and viewing them requires a kind of eye that has willingly fallen blind by me. If so, then I can go back to being snarky and vicious, which is the waller I was happily floundering around in when I began this here project.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Not everything pitched on NPR is of a culturally enriching endeavor.


Stray Observations…

  • “Somebody’s going to get hurt over this.”
  • I hope that the patient with cerebral palsy was not intended as comic relief. It seemed just on the cusp of inappropriate.
  • “Where’s my hunting knife?”
  • Another thing: this entire movie had a very disjointed three-act structure. It was very difficult to discern where the climax was, if there was any at all.
  • The title Jesus’ Son was a lyric lifted from the Velvet Underground song “Heroin,” and not of some messianic undertone. At least, not directly. Trivia!
  • “What a lousy birthday.”

Next Installment…

Brandon Routh is no Christopher Reeve (but he tries) as Superman Returns.


 

RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 2: Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” (2009)


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The Players…

Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Malin Ackerman, Billy Crudup, Jeffery Dean Morgan and Matthew Goode.


The Story…

Adapted from comic laureate Alan Moore’s landmark miniseries, the events that transpire after a superhero is murdered in an alternate universe circa 1985 lead a band of once famed costumed avengers—now outlaws—to solve the mystery. However this is no mere murder, regardless of the victim. There are far more sinister forces at work shadowing this mystery, and very little of it has to do with some dead guy wearing a costume. And a smiley face button.


The Rant…

When I was a pup, I picked up the first ish of Watchmen. Didn’t get it. I guess I was not the target audience. Sold the thing for five bucks. This was 1986 dollars. I was too young to know the oys and joys of beer, drugs and sex. I guess I was a wastrel when it came to comics as well. Who’s the latest X-Man? What’s Spidey up to? What’s sex? They do what? To each other? Eewww.

Ha. Since then, I’ve grown up. Sort of. Through waste and disgrace I now have all 12 issues of Watchmen hermetically sealed in a binder somewhere. First issues. Ugh, the geekiness of it all. Am I boasting? F*ck yeah I am.

So when the whirling dervish that is Zack Snyder got the green light to tackle a full-flung take on the mini-series (which had been languishing in production hell for lifetimes) and plaster it to the silver screen, a million comic geeks over were harping about either two things: this had better work or this ain’t gonna work.

And here I am to declare the results in a sober, reserved geeky mindset. Keep in mind, I’ve been a movie nut well before there were ever comic book movies…


It’s 1985. But not a 1985 that you’ve ever known, and this most likely is a good thing. Superheroics, once the bread and butter of America’s elite crime fighting policy, are outlawed. Any costumed avenger that didn’t want to end up rotting in some federal prison somewhere hung up their capes and aliases and joined respectable society. Now it’s just sad normalcy for the once burgeoning superhero community.

Except for one outlaw. Slinking in the shadows, on the trial of a murderer. One who killed another “cape.” He investigates the crime scene, gathers clues and shakes up the underworld for scuttlebutt.

He calls himself Rorschach (Haley). And he is a very dangerous man.

Someone killed The Comedian (Morgan), only one of two government sanctioned “superheroes.” A fed hitman, with connections to everything from the Vietnam Conflict to the Kennedy assassination. Another dangerous man, and possibly connected to a conspiracy that would threaten the entire nation. The Comedian, seemingly indestructible, thrown from his penthouse window.

Rorschach smells a rat, and goes on a mission to warn/interrogate other former heroes about the crime. Our dramatis personae consist of Dan Dreiberg (Wilson), formerly known as the Nite Owl, ornithology nut and one-time partner of Rorschach. Jon Osterberg, now known as the entity Dr. Manhattan (Crudup), who has godlike powers over physics and reality, and his girlfriend Laurie Juspeczyk (Ackerman), the Silk Specter, once a feared streetwise martial arts expert. And Adrian Veidt (Goode), calling himself Ozymandias, who used his heroics to build an corporate empire to rival that of Alexander the Great’s (wink wink) conquests. All of whom could be next on the cape-killer’s hitlist, and all could be suspects.

What’s more is that the Cold War is raging to the boiling point, and nuclear war seems eminent. There is pall cast across the country, a dark cloud that it seems only superheroes could remedy. But how could heroes come out of retirement if it meant federal incarceration? Should they don their capes and cowls again and band together to save the country? Or should they just watch their backs and hope they don’t meet a fate like The Comedian’s?

In any or all of these events, the clock is ticking…


Where to start?

Okay, the plot. It’s painfully simple, right? Painfully simple, which is all but this comic series and ensuing film is. Funny thing is it’s almost impossible to give too much away about the movie for how dense it is for its 2 hour 45 minute running time. I’m actually amazed the studio heads and/or editors allowed this length. Then again, I doubt a movie could do the comic book justice in only 90 minutes. The book and the film are that inscrutable.

My take on certain points of the film is cursory at best, because there is a sickening amount of details crammed into the near three-hour running time. I’ll try to make this work. Remember, I’m not a professional movie critic. Just a loudmouth with a blog.

At its core, Watchmen is a murder mystery. All the allegory and satire is just applesauce. Very good applesauce, mind you. But try telling a neophyte the plot of Watchmen without tying up your tongue and his mind. Right.

There is a lot more going on here than my perfunctory synopsis the story. I can’t explain it all, and that is what is the most damning about this film adaptation. There is too much going on. Props for Snyder trying his hand at it. He did what no other director managed to do thus far. He managed to do what Terry Gilliam, David Hayter, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass could not. He got it on film. Not only that, but he captured the spirit of the comic quite well, if not the complexity.

There is a holy host of touches that make this movie work. The fact things work at all is practically a miracle. It feels like Snyder got into most of the heads of the readers of the series and tried to make celluloid flesh out of what the mind’s ear heard and of what the imagination piqued.

First of all, the voices are important. It’s hard to believe that the dulcet voice of Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan) that assured us for everything else, there’s MasterCard would be such an eerie complement to the omnipotent Doctor. There’s a wistful innocence and dare I say pity in Crudup’s performance that marshals up emotions that we as the audience should have for him: pity and awe. On the flipside, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach snarl was dead on for my mind’s ear. The voice of a demented, so-called hero. The monologue in the prison interview was especially effective. The dialogue was tight and didn’t seem forced or purple, which could be construed that way if delivered by a different actor.

Along with the voices was the music, especially the now-infamous Leonard Cohen romance scene. Some of these songs also appeared in the miniseries proper, also cued up and overlapped as scenes in the book as well as the screen translation. It’s nice to know the writers did their homework. Then again, all that homework might’ve hurt the film some. It’s always difficult to translate a book into a movie. Something’s always going to be either padded or jettisoned (for Watchmen it was the whole “Black Freighter” subplot, which was later and adapted for a straight-to-DVD release). But scenarists Hayter and Tse may have adhered too closely to the source material, not leaving a lot of room for cinematic interpretation. It’s one thing to see the images leap onto the screen. It’s another to have to keep turning the pages.

The sets reflect the hard, colorful angles of the nine panel pages of the original book. Everything sort of takes a kind of surrealist focus, as if to remind the audience that this is—was—not the 1985 you knew. You get the feeling that despite the heavy-handedness of the source material, Snyder’s having a lot of fun making the film. Granted the fun is dark and sometimes demented, but let’s face the truth: sometimes the best kind of fun is dangerous.

I gave up following the movie frame-by-frame along with the original comics I cracked out for the occasion by the third act. Biggest carp? The ending was racist Hollywood, and with that a lot of other stray thoughts clutter up my mind. Being beaten over the head with exacting efforts can leave one woozy.

Do any of these points sell the film for people who’ve never read the comics? Probably not. They are but touchstones of a valiant effort to bring one of the most complex, dense and literate comic books to the screen. So…


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it, especially for fans of the comic book just to see the parallels play out. For non-fans? It’ll make you want to go out and read the comic book. It better.


Stray Observations…

  • I like the fact they got Dan Dreiberg’s hair just like it was in the comics. It’s the little details like that, which enthralls us comic book heads. We’re sometimes easy to please.
  • I wish Nixon were more of a spectral presence in the film. The ex-president only hit the pages for a few panels, and without much dialogue to boot. It was the idea of a twisted Nixon running the country that dug into most of the atmosphere of the book.
  • “I’m not locked up in here with you. You’re all locked up in here with me.”
  • Using the swinging door as Big Figure’s demise in five panels was very good camera work.
  • As with his other works adapted for the big screen, writer Alan Moore refused to be credited. Him not wanting to be credited is almost as much a thumbprint as being credited. It’s like the old riddle: try not to think about a purple octopus. Get it?
  • In the 1960’s TV sci-fi series The Outer Limits, there was an episode entitled “The Architects of Fear” where scientists plan to save Earth from nuclear war by uniting it against a manufactured alien foe. Not sure if Alan Moore ever saw this show as a kid, but it got me to wondering.

Next Installment…

We go for a Drive with Ryan Gosling.