Saturday, March 28, 2009

hot/not fun in the summer time

A couple of months ago I drove past the remnants of a bad traffic accident on a nearby highway. Tragically, a man had been killed and, as grotesque as it may sound, my traveling companions and I could not help but gawk at the tattered bits of clothing and the pool of blood that had been left on the road. It's probably callous of me to compare this sense of morbid curiosity to my feelings about the summer/blockbuster movie season, but I swear that the carnage I witnessed on the 401 was far less unnerving than my encounters with
The Love Guru and You Don't Mess With The Zohan last year. Inasmuch as I would like to avert my eyes from such car wrecks, I can never seem to muster up the will to look away.

I'm not quite certain what it is about these warmer months that makes me ignore better judgment and shell out funds to see so many lackluster films on the big screen. Sure, there are always a few big budget pictures that stand to exceed my expectations, but I am also drawn to the films that (95% guaranteed) I
know will disappoint me. Childhood nostalgia is not enough to explain my willingness to endure two Hasbro toy inspired movies this summer (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Transformers 2), especially knowing that I writhed through Transformers not so very long ago.

My inability to engage in a conversations that don't involve the movies, coupled with the fact that most of my peers watch more films during the summer than any other time, may account for a fraction of this drive to see all of said season's releases. I don't blame my friends for catalyzing my desire to be "in the know," but I do have to acknowledge my chum over at Big Thoughts from a Small Mind for inspiring me to take a look at
the top 10 summer movies that have caught my interest so far. Having his template to outright steal makes it all the easier to talk about the following flicks:

10. X-Men Origins : Wolverine

As a comic book fan who grew up reading X-Men and Wolverine almost exclusively, my expectations going into this movie are kind of low. The character has a pretty comprehensive history, and I worry that there's a bit too much story for one film to tackle (even without the extra burden of incorporating Gambit). Still, my connection with the material ensures that I will be amongst the first in line to witness Logan's first claw pop.

9. The Boat that Rocked

If you're keen on quality romantic comedies, you probably know the work of Richard Curtis:
Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, & Love, Actually. Although Hugh Grant is suspiciously absent from Curtis's latest cast, the writer/director has nevertheless assembled a delightful troupe of British actors and managed to throw Philip Seymour Hoffman into the mix, to boot. It looks as if love will take a backseat to rock 'n' roll in this picture, but I am just as eager to see Curtis romanticize the past.

8. Drag Me to Hell

How good is it to see Sam Raimi return to his horror roots? Some are touting this as an Evil Dead remake, but I tend to think that these "critics" are simply Jonesing for Bruce Campbell. As much as I would like to see ol' Bruce take the lead role in another Ash project, I am more excited to see what kind of thrills and chills Raimi can muster up with a budget that honors his Spiderman-free vision.

7. Whatever Works

I'm no expert when it comes to quantum physics, but movies and T.V. have taught me that if one meets oneself in the past, present, or future, the world will implode. So I am dying with anticipation to find out what culminates when renowned neurotic Woody Allen works with Larry David, star of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the man upon whom Seinfeld's George Costanza is based. This will either be one of Allen's most entertaining pictures or a catalyst for the apocalypse.

6. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

It's not nostalgia that urges me to see this movie so much as my desire to find out how the filmmakers have managed to make any of these characters look straight. Generally, I prefer homosexual undertones to blatant American propaganda, but I'm currently on a mission to support any film that's based on a line of action figures in hopes that we will one day see a live action adaptation of Thundercats. (Sorry, Courtney; it's how I feel)

5. Public Enemies

My thanks goes out to director Michael Mann for casting Johnny Depp in a role that forced him to get a badly needed haircut, and for providing a professional working environment for the tantrum-prone Christian Bale. Moreover, I'm excited to see some tommy guns back up on the big screen, especially in what appears to be a film of exceptional quality-- even outside the realm of summer standards.

4. Inglorious Basterds

I'll never understand what people felt was so ingenious about
Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, but I've really dug Quentin Tarantino's subsequent films. He seems to be at his best when paying homage to arcane genre styles, and Inglorious Basterds stands to be his most gritty ode to the Giallo pictures of the '70s. If you're squeamish about blood, you might want to skip this flick, but I for one am intrigued to see Brad Pitt collect some Nazi scalps, especially through the eyes of Q.T.

3. The Time Traveler's Wife

Bearing in mind that the book is always better than the movie, I am cautiously interested in this adaptation of one of my all time favorite novels. The cast doesn't necessarily mesh with the images in my head, but since no official trailer has yet been released, I'll reserve my ultimate judgment for the time being. Author Audrey Niffenegger's complex story may be a challenging one to translate for the screen, but in the hands of the guy who penned
Deep Impact and Stuart Little 2, what could possibly go wrong?

2. The Limits of Control

Counter programming tends to be futile during the summer months, but film goers like me who need a break from being marketed to like we're mindless will likely glom on to this picture from director Jim Jarmusch. Indie fans (not to be confused with Indy fans) will appreciate the cast that has been assembled, including Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, and Isaach De Bankolé. The trailer suggests echos of Jarmusch's earlier film about the code of the criminal,
Ghost Dog, which was equal parts art film and entertainment. I expect The Limits of Control to be a breath of fresh air amongst the typical mid-summer stinkers.

1. Star Trek

I can hardly contain my excitement for J.J. Abrams reboot of the only Star Trek incarnation I have been a fan of: the one where the captain is Kirk. I've never been big into any of the subsequent Treks, including any of the feature films, but I am a product of syndicated reruns and grew up with my eyes glued to the T.V. screen once a week for the adventures of the original Enterprise crew. I always thought these characters deserved better treatment after the show was untimely canceled, and despite my fondness for Shatner, I do believe that this film and its cast stand a very good chance of exceeding my expectations. Abrams has proven his talent both on television (Felicity, Alias, and LOST) and on film (with a surprisingly engaging third installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise). Given his track record, I am quite convinced that he can satiate the hunger of rabid Trekkies and deliver enough creative dynamite to attract and/or win the attention of more reluctant viewers. In honor of the film's release, I have spent the past few months attempting to grow eyebrows like Zachary Quinto. Problem is, my pet tribble keeps trying to hump my face.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

who's watching the watchmen?

Apparently, at a one o'clock Saturday matinee on opening weekend (here in Windsor, Ontario), only me and fifty-or-so other movie-goers. It's a smaller number than I would have anticipated given the intensity with which fans of the graphic novel cherish this material. Watchmen, the book, may have something of a cult following, but in terms of niche markets, it's one that is considerably large and unwaveringly loyal.

Though I understand its significance, I am not as endeared to Alan Moore's masterpiece as some of my fellow comic book junkies, and I have often been the recipient of heaping amounts of flack as a result. Still, morbid curiosity overwhelms me when a property as notoriously unfilmable as Watchmen sees the light of the projector, and the power of cinema compelled me to grab a seat in the theater as soon as time would allow. Inasmuch as I dislike Watchmen (again, the book), I was equally concerned for its fans; I felt certain that a film adaptation of such a complex work would almost certainly disappoint in terms of their rabid expectations. It may sound absurd, but I wanted the movie to be good enough to appease Watchmen's devoted audience.

And I think it is. For me, however, the cinematic adaptation is, in some ways, faithful to a fault. I have read the graphic novel several times now, always with a sense of laborious effort, and many of the issues that I consider problematic with the book emerge in the film, as well. With its dense mythology, both in terms of the origins and legacies of the costumed heroes and the sophisticated politics of the alternate historical world they inhabit, Watchmen might very well be the only comic that begs out for a supplemental Cole's Notes companion (that's Cliff's Notes, for you Staties). Even with a generous running time of 163 minutes, the film struggles to accommodate the sheer volume of exposition that Moore's story contains; in spite of the richness of its themes, the movie, like the graphic novel, is often burdened by sluggish pacing.

The film is a bit more efficient than its printed counterpart in summarizing the way that Watchmen's historical time-line diverges from our own. Of course, a reviewer must exercise even greater economy, so here goes: A naked blue man who can manipulate matter and energy intervenes in the Vietnam war, enabling the U.S. to win. Subsequently, President Nixon's popularity skyrockets and laws are altered to allow re-election for a third term in office. The Soviets, who don't much like that the United States has a nuclear man under contract, continue to stockpile munitions, and by the mid 1980's, distopian Cold War paranoia has reached new heights. Now, I know that a society disillusioned with government and living in fear of seemingly imminent nuclear war is not really a foreign concept to contemporary audiences, but having seen so many blank reactions from the crowd to numerous Cold War references in Indy and the Crystal Skulls, I suspect that the film will prove to be as inaccessible to many viewers as the book is to me.

Having said that, I admire the nuanced details that director Zack Snyder employs as a means of illustrating his/Moore's/artist Dave Gibbons' hyperbolic vision of this alternate era. For instance, living caricatures of prominent figures-- Henry Kissinger, Pat Buchanan, John McLaughlin, Truman Capote, Fidel Castro, Annie Leibovitz, David Bowie, Eleanor Clift, Ted Koppel, and so on-- litter the scenery, contributing not only to the overall design of the film, but greatly to the politically rebellious sensibility of Watchmen's narrative. This device, however, operates on the assumption that audiences will perceive such details.

The film's stunning production design is probably its most significant saving grace. While the dull color palette and stiff panel layout of the comic tend to compete with, well, everything else in the room for my eyes' attention, the movie is visually dynamic and intricately textured, and it remains captivating even when the plot lacks similar energy. The main through-line of Watchmen, you see-- The murder of costumed vigilante The Comedian prompts several of his fellow exiled crime fighters to investigate who-dunnit, why, and whether or not they might be next-- is of secondary importance to the characters' personal/philosophical struggles and paralyzing memories, and certainly to the material's explicit moral critiques. In essence, this revisionist superhero tale is quite poignant thematically, but Alan Moore's writing style tends to be cumbersome, and when transposed directly to dialogue, sounds clunky and stilted.

So it seems that most of the elements that fashioned my antagonistic attitude toward the book have prevented me from engaging with the screen adaptation of Watchmen to a notably greater degree. Still, I have revisited this story on a number of occasions, and each time I do, I experience highly charged intellectual and emotional reactions that make me wonder if something isn't resonating after all. I'll never admit to that, of course. I have a reputation to maintain as the sole Windsorite to denounce Watchmen, not as one of the few who showed up to see it.