Monday, March 9, 2009

Watchmen (Movie Review, More or Less)

As I write this, Watchmen, which opened locally last Friday, is listed on IMDb as the 152nd top film of all time, right under Fellini’s 8 ½ and right above the Coens’ The Big Lebowski.

Just for the record, I never read the graphic novel on which Watchmen the film is based. I should also disclose that I saw director Zack Snyder’s previous hit 300 in the theater and was entertained—mainly by the cool-looking ancient rhinoceros and bulging CG pectorals—but underwhelmed overall by its chic fascism. Snyder gets a lot of credit—from the films’ marketers, if not from film critics—for his “vision”—the more remarkably because his films reportedly add little more than animation and sound to their paper-and-ink sources.

The film, I have to say, is a knockout for its first two hours, roughly 75% its total running time—jumping between flashbacks and a fictitious present, an alternative 1985, in which Richard Nixon enjoys his third term in the Office of the President, while facing a JFK-like missile crisis with the Soviets over occupation of Afghanistan. Not a whole lot is done with the political (and metaphysical) undercurrents of the plot; they are more “visionary,” i.e. eye candy, than substantive or intellectual.

No critic I have read has so far reviewed the movie enthusiastically. RottenTomatoes awards it a modest 65%. But I had heard that a nine-yard-long blue, glowing penis plays a prominent role in the film, so I tore off for the local cineplex. Besides, even the bad reviews gave me the impression that the story is prettily realized, with a high potential as high camp.

The movie is an odd mix of good, understated acting (Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson) and bad character makeup (strange that in the era of CGE, Hollywood makeup is now actually worse than it was in the eras of Jack P. Pierce and William J. Tuttle), mixed together with some unconvincing line readings by supporting actors who show every sign of being pals to whom the film’s producers owed favors or, in the case of the usually competent Matthew Goode, vice versa.

The plot (and probably you already know this) centers on the murders of retired masked crime fighters, a conspiracy to knock off ageing but still colorful heroes, whom Nixon has forced into retirement to restore the work of justice to police and courts. Personally threatened, the heroes begin to conspire (or at any rate discuss at length whether they ought) to reemerge from the shadows to defend themselves and, perhaps, to save humanity.

The gist of all this, along with the film’s most sympathetic characters, is politically reactionary, in a Reagan-era Rambo sort of way. Obviously, the film endorses vigilantism over government-based law and justice. But the plot is just muddled enough that the theme of vigilante revenge remains rather more muted and innocuous than your typical Dirty Harry movie … or even last year’s The Dark Knight.

Less innocuously, the film rehashes the stereotype of super villains not-so-subtly coded as “gay”—and blatantly degraded for being “intelligent”—a prejudice (the latter) that has never hurt box-office receipts or, until last November, political candidates. The film’s only lesbian crime fighter gets whacked during the opening credits (which also solve the mystery of the JFK assassination), and, to add insult to injury, we are later informed (by a winsome bigot) that her death is just punishment for her unsavory life style.

Also, Asians and blacks are not only marginalized, but routinely presented as recipients of the heroes’ harsh (and sometimes insanely violent) meting out of payback. See an almond-shaped eye or dark skin, and you can literally count the seconds before it’s squished, shredded, sizzled, or vaporized.

The last 45 minutes, when all is resolved and love conquers (almost) all, sags in a bad way. I’ll spare you any particular spoilers. I won’t say the ending is predictable, it is not, but it’s convoluted as hell—and not in a way that invites stimulating post-credits conversations over pie and coffee, though clearly the story strives for high seriousness in the resolution.

Despite my not having much good to say about this movie so far, I did enjoy it, perhaps least of all for Dr Manhattan’s blue but perpetually flaccid penis.

My favorite parts of the movie were the glimpses of heroes circa 1940, their baggy flannel costumes in sharp contrast to the sleek neoprene muscle-huggers of the later heroes. I, for one, would like to have seen more of Mothman, a vaguely effete superhero with clumsy wire and acetate wings, who goes nuts and gets carted off to the funny farm. And the Bettie Page-like Silhouette, the previously mentioned lesbian, deserves better than a cameo appearance and early exit.

Watchmen is quirky, and quirkiness counts for a lot with me. I’m also a fan of pastiche, and this film packs loads of it. The movie risks inviting ridicule on a number of occasions and mostly but not always manages to dodge it. I often say that, lover of fine cinema and classics that I am, I can also enjoy a movie for its noisy soundtrack and pretty colors. Watchmen is enjoyable in exactly that sort of way.

1 comment:

  1. ADDENDUM: I just read Roger Ebert's very favorable four-star review of Watchmen, published on March 4th. Ebert is a great writer and film critic, who judges movies for what they are--from high brow to low brow--and, while I don't always agree with Ebert, I am always interested in his opinion ... of pretty much anything.



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