Talking Movies

January 27, 2019

Notes on Vice

Postmodern Dick Cheney biopic Vice was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Vice, perhaps fittingly, stands in relation to writer/director Adam McKay’s The Big Short as George Bush Jr stands in relation to Jeb Bush; not nearly as competent but more likely to be showered with unearned prizes. The Big Short was sprawling, but, despite following three storylines; Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling, Finn Wittrock and Brad Pitt, and Christian Bale; was surprisingly focused in explaining the housing bubble and credit crunch they were all betting on. You would think that following just one character, Dick Cheney, would make for a tighter movie. And you would be wrong. This is a ramshackle mess; exemplified by its opening in 1963, purposelessly jumping forward to 9/11, and then back to 1963 again, followed by opening credits that feel like they belong in an early 1970s crime movie, about 15 minutes in.  There’s another two hours to go after that conceit and McKay has here achieved the unenviable and baffling feat of making a film that is both far too long yet also doesn’t go into enough detail on anything.

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December 9, 2018

From the Archives: W

A penultimate dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up Oliver Stone’s forgotten and rather pointless George Bush Jr takedown.

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This George W Bush biopic reunites Oliver Stone with his Wall Street co-writer. It is thus very disappointing that there is no trace of that film’s searing indictment of American greed, but perhaps even more amazingly the man who directed JFK has lost his visual flair.

W is a very odd film, it’s not satire and it’s not a factual drama. It attempts to straddle, and falls short of, both genres. 13 Days made the Cuban Missile Crisis gripping simply by showing how Kennedy dealt with it blow by blow. Channel 4’s The Deal made the trade between Brown and Blair fascinating, even if it was largely speculative. BBC 4’s The Alan Clark Diaries made real politics hilarious. W hopelessly tries to combine all three approaches. We follow the run-up to and fall-out from the Iraq War, while flashing back to the pivotal moments in W’s life that led him to the White House. Stone though has nothing to say about these moments except that Bush has ‘daddy issues’, and that’s why he went to war. This insight isn’t profound or original but could have been heard in bars, on both the sides of the Atlantic, after too many drinks, for the last five years.

James Cromwell alone among the cast does not try to imitate his character and so nicely counterpoints Brolin’s Jr. Cromwell’s George Sr (or Poppy) appears cold and disapproving but we realise that his shepherding of his son Jeb rather than W towards the Presidency is because he wishes to shelter W from the strain of a job that does not suit his temperament. Josh Brolin is extraordinary as W. He perfectly captures the voice and mannerism of Bush Jr but also makes us care deeply for this uncomplicated jock. When W loses a 1980 run for Congress and storms into his backyard exclaiming “I’ll never be out-Texased or out-Christianed again!” we feel his pain more than the obvious satirical anticipation of his 2000 run for Presidency that Stone intends. W’s born-again Christianity is handled with surprising (and welcome) warmth, but while personally Bush saw the light, politically it led him to some dark places. However to expect that sort of complexity is to want a different, less obvious, film.

And Stone does get very obvious… Jeffrey Wright plays Saint Colin Powell while Richard Dreyfuss needs a moustache to twirl villainously as Dick Cheney. Characters say in private their most infamous public gaffes while Condoleeza Rice is written out of history, perhaps because Thandie Newton’s forced attempts to get Rice’s voice right make her screen presence too painful to dwell on. George Bush is not a bad man, he’s just a very bad president, the worst since Herbert Hoover, who also made way for a charismatic Democrat offering change, FDR. But, Oliver, we already knew that…

2/5

September 26, 2018

From the Archives: Taken

Ten years ago today Taken was released in Ireland.

Liam Neeson admitted that he only took this part because at 56 he didn’t expect to be offered an action role again, from such inauspicious beginnings comes an unexpected joy as Neeson has the time of his life in Taken as effectively he gets to play Jack Bauer at age 56.

His operative secret agent (or “preventer” as he describes himself, think CTU…) has retired to spend more time with his estranged daughter. She is living with her aggravatingly wealthy stepfather Xander Berkeley (yes, that’s right Jack Bauer’s boss George Mason in 24) and Neeson’s bitter ex-wife Famke Janssen, a thankless role which is becoming so prevalent that someone really needs to have a character riposte “Well, if you’re ex is that much of a loser, it doesn’t say much about you that you married them, does it?” to get rid of it. LOST’s Maggie Grace plays Jack’s daughter Kim. Yes that’s right, French writer/producer Luc Besson has brilliantly pre-empted the planned 24 movie to the extent of having a permanently in peril daughter Kim. Kim travels to Paris with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) and, Kims being Kims, they get kidnapped by a gang trafficking in sex slaves. It’s worth sighing at this point that both actresses are far too old for their roles and ‘act young’ by jumping around a lot and screaming, which is not much of a stretch for Grace it must be admitted but is quite disappointing from Cassidy given her very cool role as a taciturn demon on Supernatural.

Neeson, as you might have seen from the absurd trailer, talks Kim through her kidnap and threatens the kidnappers before they hang up on him. He jets over, courtesy of the private plane belonging to Berkeley’s wealthy businessman, and gets medieval on the kidnappers. This isn’t “ooh look at our fancy fight choreography” fighting, this is down and dirty “how many punches, jabs and kicks do I really need to give in order to cripple this person?” fighting and bone-crunchingly realistic it looks too. This is the adrenaline rush that 24 provided before it got ridiculous. Neeson is superbly cast for this, his 6, 4” frame dominating any room he walks into, while his boxing past makes his fight scenes more plausible than is usual in a Besson produced action flick. Neeson finds the gang holding his daughter through a mix of dogged detective work, old contacts (including a mentor who features in a scene outrageously lifted directly by Besson from Day 5 of 24), old fashioned brutality and yes, you guessed it, one very nasty torture scene involving a lecture by Neeson on the joys of a constant supply of electricity when trying to beat confessions out of bad guys. Besson sure knows his 24… By the end of this film you feel sure that Neeson has killed or maimed half the Parisian underworld and, quelle surprise, the big bad turns out to be an evil Arab.

If one wanted to gripe about all this one could say that Pierre Morel’s film endorses the sort of pop-fascism espoused by 24 but analysing the politics of this nonsense would really be pushing it. This is not high art. What it is is gripping, plausible, brutal and ultimately awesome fun. Highly recommended.

4/5

August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

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Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

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But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

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Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

July 10, 2014

Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater unveils a coming of age film 12 years in the making and the result is a dazzling technical achievement of great heart; whose humour belies its length.

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Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) is a normal six year old living in Texas with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and bullying sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). He only sees his divorced dad Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) at weekends, and enjoys escaping from his proper mother’s care to the more freewheeling parenting of his muscle-car driving father. It’s a normal boyhood, and time rolls by… And it really does roll. Mason Sr becomes more responsible, Mason’s mom finds happiness elusive, Samantha becomes an ally not a nemesis, and Mason Jr starts to develop his own personality in response to the various people who surround him and the times he lives in (the transition from Bush to Obama, anger to hope to disillusionment). To reveal more details would deprive you of the pleasure of Linklater’s seamless transition between years, teasing misdirection, and subtle reveals.

Astonishingly Linklater made 10 films while chipping away at this film; yearly vignette by yearly vignette. His absolute faith in child actor Ellar Coltrane, and his own daughter Lorelei, are rewarded by performances that begin in wonderful comedy and grow, through some shocking scenes, to encompass genuine depth of feeling as their characters mature. Lee Daniel and Shane F Kelly meanwhile manage to shoot Texas with such rigorous continuity that at times the joins between years aren’t even noticeable if Mason Jr hasn’t changed hairstyle or grown a few inches. This is a rare occasion when the term novelistic is deserved. Boyhood has the narrow focus on a handful of characters and their interactions of The Art of Fielding, but the longer span of time to probe psychological formation of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’s bildunsgroman; and Linklater’s innovation of charting the passage of time by the actual passage of time is jaw-dropping. Arquette’s entire run on Medium is encompassed (and observable in her varying hairstyles) as her character grows older but more brittle not wiser, and skinny Hawke noticeably physically fills out in a career-best performance of serious comedy. Boyhood is also richly novelistic with interpretation…

Mason Sr at first seems an archetypal deadbeat dad. But over time we see he’s quite wise; his rebelliousness is very much a surface affectation thrown off for mellow acquiescence with the way of the world. Which leaves you wondering, will Mason Jr follow that same arc? Arquette’s mom seems to be the sensible one, but over time we see she’s actually sensible in everything except matters of the heart where she’s quite hopeless. And, in a sly critique of divorce, what Mason Jr would regard as his unique personality; artsy, ditching Facebook to live an authentic life, given to paranoid riffs about the evils of the NSA;  is largely a rebellion against the hypocritical, brutal, ‘Duty, Honour, Country’ Christian authoritarianism foisted on him by stand-in fathers. But the amazing late exchange between father and son – “Yep, I’ve finally become the boring, castrated guy your mom always wanted. And she could have had it too, if she’d just been a bit more patient, and a bit more forgiving.” “And it sure would have saved me a parade of drunken assholes” – obscures the fact that an unexpected gift, not from Mason Sr, is what helped Jr find his metier in life…

Boyhood is probably the film of 2014. See it on the big screen to be wowed by life itself; your own nostalgia mixes with Mason Jr’s impressively realised youth.

5/5

December 20, 2011

The Rises and Falls of Michael Moore

Michael Moore is still making entertaining documentaries using the same methods he’s employed for the past 20 years, so why does no one care anymore?

I had this thought when I heard that Moore was in town doing a show in the Grand Canal Theatre to promote his new book, and realised that, no matter how good this new book was, only a fraction of the number of people who proudly displayed Stupid White Men on their book-shelves as a symbol of right-on resistance to George Bush Jr would bother to buy this one. It’s not like Moore’s writing has suffered an obvious fall-off and that’s the reason that people are eschewing it. Stupid White Men is very funny but also very sketchy at times in its logic and arguments, while Dude, Where’s my Country? is filled with excruciatingly childish sneering at conservatives. But both sold phenomenally well. No, whatever the quality of this book its reception will be muted because Moore’s time as de riguer reading has simply passed.

Moore’s time was quite short, lasting only around 4 years or so, but of course it wasn’t his first coming. Roger & Me launched Moore to fame in America in 1989, and set the tone for his whole career with its partisan satirical railing against corporate greed in the traditionally more neutral documentary genre. I fondly remember Moore’s TV show appearing on Channel 4 in the mid-1990s where he door-stepped businessmen and generally afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. He faded out of view for quite some time and then, almost out of nowhere, Bowling for Columbine and Stupid White Men gave him a huge audience on both sides of the Atlantic. I welcomed him back as an old friend while watching Bowling for Columbine but it was clear that attacking capitalist excesses wasn’t enough anymore. He aimed higher, and ironically brought himself down.

Fahrenheit 9/11 went after George Bush Jr on a petty if entertaining level but was undone by its own indiscipline. Despite the opprobrium heaped upon it, it is a very good polemic – either side of a truly terrible half-hour about Iraq and vague conspiracy theories. More people saw this any of Moore’s other films and that’s why it was dangerously ill-judged. Fahrenheit 9/11 was designed to topple Bush from power but instead he was re-elected with a thumping majority. I think ordinary cinema-goers were inclined to view Moore’s film as a failure in propagandising, both because of its practical lack of success and its aesthetic clumsiness, and the more political among them were inclined to blame him for Bush’s victory by his populist rabble-rousing spurring the GOP into more effective voter-turnout drives. But if this was when Moore’s stock fell other circumstances wiped it out.

The tide turned quickly for a President who had boasted of spending his huge political capital, and after Hurricane Katrina, and with increasing popular discontent with the fiscal and emotional cost of the never-ending occupation of Iraq (especially its maiming of a generation of volunteer soldiers), Bush was as toxic electorally as Moore had wished to make him. Sicko thus appeared when it was already clear that Bush’s neo-conservatism was out of favour, and Capitalism: A Love Story was released at a time of utter irrelevance for any American elections. The replacement of Bush with Obama was, for the rest of the world, akin to Hunter S Thompson’s characterisation of the political demise of Lyndon B Johnson – an evil king had been overthrown, and now we all could stop worrying about over-reaching American politics. And that meant not caring about American healthcare or capitalism either…

Which is a pity because Capitalism is a fascinating watch, filled with archival gold and provocative arguments, while Sicko’s polemic for a better healthcare system is quite devastating, and might have aided Obama’s strenuous and half-successful efforts at reform – except of course that no American conservative would watch it, never mind a Tea Party member. Americans seem to have turned away from Moore as being either counter-productive or treasonous, while the rest of the world apparently has turned away from his work because it’s simply become bored with an America that patently has lost the ability to project its power as it once did, either economically or politically, and is so dogged by polarised partisan infighting as to arguably be on the verge of a constitutional crisis; because if the legislature refuses to engage with the executive but merely engages in monolithic opposition deadlock ensues.

I strongly believe that within the next thirty years we will all have absorbed, by a process of osmosis, a basic knowledge of Chinese history and culture merely as necessary background noise to understanding what will then be the world’s pre-eminent country. We will know exactly what Confucius said, and be able to talk about the origin myth of modern China in the Opium Wars with the British, and know when the various dynasties ruled as readily as we roughly know when various houses of monarchy were on the throne in England. Part of that realpolitik adjustment might already have begun in an abjuration of interest in American politics as it can now be regarded as purely a domestic American concern with greatly decreased international impact. Moore’s future success might then be dependent on American domestic politics again forcefully impacting the rest of the world.

Can Michael Moore stage another comeback? The odds are stacked against him, but who knows, the Tea Party may yet do the unthinkable for them and make him fashionable again.

July 28, 2010

Snyder’s Sensibility

Does Zack Snyder, director of Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen, have an identifiable and disturbing filmic sensibility or is it too early in his career to judge?

In a previous blog entry I wrote about misgivings regarding Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s epic comic Watchmen. These included the fact that Snyder’s Rorschach growled like Batman, rendering him heroic, whereas Moore gave Rorschach peculiar syntax to indicate his damaged state – this raised the worry that Snyder viewed Rorschach’s interior monologue as colourfully phrased expressions of a legitimate worldview rather than reprehensible ravings. More alarming was the linked problem of violence and visuals as, to masquerade as a blockbuster, Snyder had added violence, eliding Moore’s satirical point about the need for violent spectacle, and then reversing Moore’s intentions in Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s intentionally lame rescue of people from a fire, which made their subsequent sex even more pointedly pathetic, by filming it as slow-mo heroic firestorms followed by ‘Hallelujah’ scored sex…

One could argue Snyder was demonstrating that he had only one style of directing, slow-mo ultra-violence, but what if it was a sensibility that colours his approach to all material? Dawn of the Dead threw out what little social satire there was in Romero’s original movie, about survivors repulsing zombies from a shopping mall, and instead indulged in that easiest of cheap horror tricks, fast-running zombies, as well as oceans of gore and needlessly nasty moments like a zombie baby trying to eat someone seconds after being born from an infected mother. Dawn’s writer went on to write and direct the joyous Slither so the majority of the blame must lie with Snyder. 300, which may be the cinematic encapsulation of the cocksureness of Bush America, works wonderfully as a musical comedy without music so replete is it with absurd patriotism and macho bombast, but Snyder in all seriousness made an action movie about freedom, and the people I know who hate 300 are uniformly the ones who took it seriously, like Snyder, rather than comically.

I wrote previously on the dilemma of criticising bad films without encouraging more of the same. I have since seen the ultimate cut of Watchmen in such a manner as to avoid both such encouragement and the vengeance of the FBI. I’m aware Ultimate Watchmen is not the theatrical cut most people saw, but the interpolation of the animated Black Freighter storyline along with its sheer wide-screen nature makes it more considered than a cut running an hour shorter could be, which allows some interesting observations. It remains a curiosity rather than a good movie, as it hews so closely to the comic, but Snyder is more restrained than I would have thought possible and one can only have a small number of quibbles with his adaptation.

These quibbles though feed the idea that there is a distinctive Snyder Sensibility, as their presence in the shorter theatrical cut emphasises both that Snyder wanted to include them above all else, and that they are jarring wrong notes. The ‘Hallelujah’ sex scene is painfully funny, and unintentionally so, and misses the point on two levels of its source equivalent by being heroic (even down to the climaxing fire-burst from Archie) because the preceding fire rescue has been presented in a bombastic rather than cringe-inducing fashion, and by following the failed sex scene which fails to juxtapose TV commentary on Veidt’s athletics prowess with Nite Owl’s impotence – an omission that makes a nonsense of interpretations of the alley scene as necessary misdirection because of the superpowers displayed in the opening fight. By the alley scene I of course mean the infamous moment when Silk Spectre, an out of shape human devoid of superpowers, rips the bone straight out of a man’s arm in a spray of blood with her bare hands. To quote Dean Winchester – “What the Hell?!” The other quibbles are Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the blood seeping out from the toilet after Rorschach flushes Big Figure, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer.

Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off thereby ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him in agony when Moore slashes his throat for an instant death? Why replace water with blood and have Rorschach graphically kill the child murderer rather than Mad Max him? Snyder adds sadism to an already nasty story, makes explicit violence that was elided, and prioritises super slo-mo sex and violence over logic. This is a sensibility. He may grow out of this seeming love of sadism for its own sake – Ultimate Watchmen displays new maturity – but if not he may become the new Tim Burton…

December 14, 2009

On Not Watching the Watchmen

Zack Snyder directing Alan Moore’s Watchmen raises the intriguing question – can a right-wing director successfully helm the work of a left-wing writer? Moore doesn’t seem to think so, but then Watchmen is very unrepresentative of his work, perhaps he resents its veneration because it’s the closest he’s come to Frank Miller’s shtick. The quintessential Moore is really the impossibly clever allusive universe and absurdist comedy of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman.

Greg Garrett noted that Moore’s Batman in The Killing Joke was more interested in rehabilitating criminals than any before or since and that the Joker was given a more sympathetic portrayal; hence Moore’s writing is distinctly left-wing, especially when one considers his nemesis Miller’s splenetic fury at that work: “I disagree with everything Moore did in that book….My Joker was more evil than troubled; Alan’s was more troubled than evil”. Watchmen’s author is a left wing lunatic (read some interviews with Moore – full of the right spirit, but barking), so it’s deluded to think it could be done justice by a man who produced a completely faithful adaptation of 300. Snyder’s film works wonderfully, as a comedy, so replete is it with absurd patriotism and macho bombast. The DVD extras confirm Snyder is a right-wing lunatic, because he in all seriousness put it together as a straight down the line action about freedom, not preposterous nonsense – a sort of musical comedy without music. Moore refused to be drawn on Snyder’s approach to Watchmen, pithily dismissing 300: “I didn’t particularly like the book 300. I had a lot of problems with it, and everything I heard or saw about the film tended to increase rather than reduce them: it was racist, it was homophobic, and above all it was sublimely stupid”. Moore you see detests Miller for being a right-wing lunatic. Miller doesn’t do rehabilitation of criminals, or shades of grey, and as his career has progressed his obsession with whorish females and stylised violence has become ever more repetitive, distasteful and shallow, even as Moore’s work has become more playful, intelligent and optimistic. Miller and Snyder mesh in a way that Moore and Snyder patently do not, it is a question of worldview.

Rorschach was meant as a parody of Steve Ditko’s ridiculous early 1970s comics character Mr A, a vigilante who saw the world in strict black and white morality and delivered savage beatings to anyone who strayed. Moore was parodying this insane Manicheanism. An insistence on dividing the world into good or evil, not only denies political reality and the existence of ethical dilemmas it is also (as Ditko soon found out from falling sales) largely devoid of any artistic interest. Moore was not endorsing Mr A/Rorschach’s politics but if Snyder directed 300, which may in time be come to seen as the ultimate cinematic encapsulation of the cocksureness of the Bush zeitgeist, does he not believe in exactly what Moore mocked? Moore gave Rorschach peculiarly phrased dialogue, an aural equivalent would be rather high-pitched – hysterical and psychotic. Synder’s Rorschach growls like Batman, which renders him heroic rather than damaged. Does Snyder regard Rorschach’s interior monologue then not as reprehensible but merely colourfully phrased expressions of a legitimate worldview? Even Ditko when asked about Rorschach replied “Oh yes, he’s like Mr A, but insane”. Perhaps Snyder failed to realise that Nite Owl 2 is obviously Batman…

Moore’s comic is violent but the presentation downplays panels of violence in favour of panels of characters talking to each other indoors. Not exactly blockbuster visuals, so Synder amps up the violence. This elides Moore’s satirical point about the comic medium’s need for violent spectacle, which is even more pertinent to blockbusters. Nite Owl 2 and Silk Spectre’s rescue of people from a fire is intentionally seriously lame, making the sex afterwards even more pointedly pathetic and indicative of some heavy-duty psychosis on Nite Owl’s part. Why then film it with slow-mo heroic firestorms and Hallelujah scored sex? One could argue that Synder has only one style of directing – slow-mo ultra-violence – but when a co-writer/director hits so many wrong notes by applying a ‘previously winning formula’ it points more towards the politics of adaptation: it is possible to be faithful in replicating exact panels of a comic-book but miss the point, it’s called not getting irony.

But why deliberately not watch Watchmen? Here’s why:

CASEY: Snyder’s Watchmen will be rubbish.
LIBERAL: If you haven’t seen it, you can’t criticise it.
(Casey goes to cinema, resumes argument with Liberal)
CASEY: Fine I’ve seen it now and it is witless trash, but then I already knew that. Why the hell does Hollywood keep producing such dross?
(Enter a Hollywood producer)
DELANEY: We only make movies like Watchmen because they’re profitable. If people stopped going to them we wouldn’t make more. You’ve paid to see two of Snyder’s films now so blame yourself for his next one getting financed.
CASEY: Hang on a minute, so I can’t criticise the film without seeing it, but if I see it I just guarantee more of the same. (beat, turns to Liberal) Are you two working together?
LIBERAL: I have no comment on the matter…

And so I will have no part in encouraging Snyder.

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