Archive for March, 2009


Saturday, March 21st, 2009—Film

Watchmen (USA 2009, Action/Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Thriller), Writers: David Hayter, Alex Tse; Director: Zack Snyder

I met a guy with a dog named Knup (punk spelled backwards) who was reading the graphic novel, Watchmen, by Alan Moore. I took a glance at it after seeing the movie, and found that many of the moments were lifted directly from the comic. So I assume most fans of the graphic novel will appreciate the film adaptation.

Having never read the novel, I appreciated the movie but I’m not sure how much I liked it. I loved some of the ideas behind it, but felt like there were a lot of wasted opportunities to really explore some of the psychological, religious, political and societal issues that are raised. It was pretty cheesy, and there was some bad acting and far too much gory violence. (When fists start going through body parts, I start closing eyes.) The movie has a great soundtrack, but the music isn’t integrated into the film so much as it is featured in it; most of the musical sequences are clunky and self-conscious. Still, the themes the movie brings up are interesting enough to make me want to write a post about it, and to try to track down that guy and his dog to see if I can borrow the comic.

Watchmen is set in a 1985 America where Nixon is still in power, and costumed heroes are a recognized part of society—even if they have been forced into retirement by the government. The context is deeply rooted around America’s political past. An opening montage highlights the Watchmen’s activities, starting from when they came into power in the 1940s and following them through the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the current threat of impending nuclear destruction—indicated by the Doomsday Clock that’s permanently set to midnight.

Soon after the opening montage, we see one of the Watchmen murdered. The assault leaves Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) convinced that someone has it in for him and the other remaining Watchmen, so he sets out on a mission to warn his former partners and find out who’s behind the murder.

One of the main disappointments for me was the wasted potential to explore the complex psychologies of the Watchmen. Rorschach is the only character whose backstory is satisfying and convincing. A lot of that has to do with the excellent performance Haley turns in. He’s the genius behind the Academy Award-nominated portrayal of tormented sex offender Ronnie in Little Children, and he’s equally good as Rorschach. Haley leaves you utterly convinced of Rorschach’s motives, and left me wanting to see a film entirely about him. Unfortunately, none of the other characters are given the same depth, either by the actors or the filmmakers.

Another disappointment was the fact that the movie never followed through on one of the story’s central themes—the superhero as “every man.” With the exception of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), none of the Watchmen possess super powers. (Although they would make kickass track athletes.) Instead, they’re “real” people living within the rest of society, if not quite fitting in.

Rather than believing in a higher power that will come to humanity’s defence, the Watchmen have to grapple with the notion that they’ve been left alone to do “God’s work.” There are many references to God in the movie. In reflecting on the disastrous state of humanity, Rorschach says “God didn’t make the world this way. We did.” But if that’s the case—and as the movie’s clever tagline asks—who watches the Watchmen? Does anyone, or anything, really care?

This sense of abandonment is highlighted by the fact that the god-like Dr. Manhattan, who has the power to create matter from nothing, is no longer convinced there is any value to life. I kept wishing the screenwriters had delved further into this topic instead of wasting time on cornball antics. I couldn’t have cared less about anything involving Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson).

One of the other main letdowns came when we see Dr. Manhattan’s unique take on the world through Silk Spectre’s eyes. Dr. Manhattan is blessed and cursed with the ability to see the past, present and future simultaneously. This power supposedly gives him an omniscient perspective, one he feels Silk Spectre doesn’t even try to understand. But when she asks to see the world through his eyes, all we get are her own repressed childhood memories. Hardly universe-altering. If someone can see past, present and future simultaneously (assuming they have independent thought, which Dr. Manhattan appears to have throughout the film), I imagine it would be like looking through a kaleidoscope—an ever-changing landscape that’s coloured by the past, but changed by the millisecond as feelings and experiences alter the present and redirect the future’s path. The memory Silk Spectre dredges up just seems trite in comparison to the transcendental power Dr. Manhattan supposedly holds.

Which leads me to a real-life transcendental experience my sister recently told me about. There’s a fascinating neuroanatomist named Julie Bolte Taylor who went through a massive stroke many years ago. The stroke temporarily severed communication between her left and right hemispheres, and she was able to tune out the “brain chatter” from her left hemisphere—the one that controls language and logic, reflects on the past and projects onto the future—and focus only on the right hemisphere. Bolte Taylor describes entering a Zen-like state of Nirvana, where everything was connected by energy and she no longer felt limited by her body, or by her past and preconceptions. “Imagine what it would feel like,” she says, “to lose 37 years of emotional baggage! I felt euphoria.” Without the left hemisphere governing her thoughts, she was free to feel her emotions and instincts without censorship, in their purest form. (I highly recommend watching this video to hear the story in Bolte Taylor’s own words.)

This reminds me of Dr. Manhattan. He has transcended his physical form. And he can control energy. But he can’t feel it. He has broken everything and everyone down to the smallest level, so much so that his reality has become pointless. Rather than experiencing a conversation with his girlfriend, he simply informs her of the outcome and writes it off. He is so overloaded with ideas and notions about the past and future that he’s given up on living in the present.

All of the Watchmen do this to some extent. They can’t predict the future, but they’re so coloured by their pasts and busy anticipating the future that they can’t fully experience the present. That’s a problem everyone faces in today’s world; we couldn’t fulfill daily expectations without our left hemisphere. But for the Watchmen, who are imprisoned by neuroses and scars from the past, it presents an interesting notion—that connectedness and being in touch with one another’s energy could lead to a more whole, peaceful kind of humanity where life is truly valued and respected. At one point in the film, when Dr. Manhattan begins to find his way back to the others, he concludes that life is as much as miracle as “turning air into gold.”

Watchmen offers plenty to chew on. From what I’ve heard about the graphic novel, it’s much more intellectually satisfying than the movie. It says a lot that Moore refused screen credit. Still, many thought-provoking ideas are touched on, albeit lightly, in the film. And the visuals are stunning. I’d say see it if you can stomach blood and guts (highly stylized, of course) and are capable of hitting the mute button on your left brain for a few hours. And definitely see it if you’ve read the comic.

Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne)

Sunday, March 8th, 2009—Film

Tell No One (France 2006, Crime/Drama/Mystery/Thriller), Writer/Director: Guillaume Canet

A few weeks ago, when I was laid up with a cold, I rented a really great French film called Tell No One. I watched it, and then I did nothing else with it until now, which is a shame because it’s an excellent movie and has been showing at repertory theatres in the meantime. But it is available to rent, and will be coming back to the ByTowne next month. So you should make a point of seeing it, one way or another.

Tell No One was released in Europe in 2006, but it didn’t reach North American audiences until 2008. When the film begins, Dr. Alex Beck (François Cluzet) and his wife Margot (Marie-Josée Croze) are spending a blissfully romantic day in the country. By the end of the night, Margot is brutally murdered and Alex is unconscious.

Eight years later, Alex is still frozen in his grief. He never got over the loss of his wife, who was his greatest love and childhood sweetheart. Near the eighth anniversary of Margot’s unsolved murder, two bodies are turned up near the site of her death. And Alex gets an email with evidence that Margot is still alive—and instructions to tell no one. As Alex secretly tries to put the pieces together, the police become increasingly suspicious of him, not only for Margot’s death but also for the rising body count.

Tell No One is based on the Harlan Coben novel of the same name. I haven’t read the book, but I didn’t have to to know that the movie definitely stands on its own. It doesn’t suffer from the problem many adaptations do: taking the source material too literally and failing to translate onscreen. In the end, Tell No One is a simple enough story (if murder can ever really be simple). Its success comes in the way writer/director Canet lets the story unfold. The mystery itself isn’t particularly unusual or inspired. But the pacing throughout the movie is so spot-on that you’re intrigued to the very end.

Canet and Cluzet keep you aligned with Alex throughout the film, giving you a reason to care about what happens to him. Part of that reason lies in the fabulous job the filmmakers did in establishing Alex and Margot’s bond. Cluzet and Croze—a Quebec actress and one of the most appealing performers I’ve ever watched (see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)—really make you believe in the couple’s love. The fact that you can feel Alex’s loss goes a long way to making you want to see his journey through to the end.

In this way, Tell No One achieves exactly what I criticized The Brave One for failing to do. There’s a certain quiet that director Canet lets happen between Alex and Margot, in the little looks and touches we see, and it allows their relationship to blossom on camera. In Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, it was too much, too soon for the lovebirds. But with Tell No One, it’s a case of never enough, never soon enough. Or, in the words of a much better writer than I: “You’re many years late/how happy I am to see you.”

Go rent Tell No One. You’ll wonder why you waited so long.