All Along the Watchtower

Film Reviews: ‘Watchmen,’ ‘One Week’ and ‘Pontypool’

by Brian D. Johnson

MALIN AKERMAN as Silk Spectre II and PATRICK WILSON as Nite Owl II in WATCHMEN

MALIN AKERMAN as Silk Spectre II and PATRICK WILSON as Nite Owl II in WATCHMEN

Big opening weekend. Last night I saw Watchmen, the last word in comic book movies. And as I left the theatre, someone pressed a card into my palm promoting the opening of Bruce McDonald‘s cool zombie movie, Pontypool, featuring a Q & A with its star Stephen McHattie—who also has a minor role in Watchmen. On the invitation, Watchmen‘s title was printed in bigger type than Pontypool. I guess that’s called counter-programming. More on Pontypool and One Week later, but now for the main event.

I came to Watchmen as a civilian. Hadn’t read the graphic novel, and didn’t want to confuse my palate by boning up before the screening. Figured I might as well get the benefit of seeing the movie fresh, without knowing much about it. Well, not much except for the media hype, which has tended to dwell on dueling anxieties—on the one hand, fans of the graphic novel were fretting that the movie might compromise its hard-core pulp purity of its doomsday scenario; and on the other, industry types wondered if a mass audience of the uninitiated was ready for an ultra-violent R-rated movie without movie stars that’s almost three hours long and amounts to an operatic essay on Cold War existentialism costumed as an comic book blockbuster.

Maybe I’m just impressionable, but this Watchmen neophyte was, well, blown away. I mean, I think I was blown away. Because this is the kind of movie that tries to blow you away and then asks you to clean up the smithereens and ponder their significance. And Watchmen does seem significant. With brutal ambition, it trumps every comic book movie that’s gone before. Based on a 12-episode series of DC comics created by writer Alan Moore, artist Dave Gibbons in 1986 and 1987, and later compiled as a graphic novel, it’s the grail of superhero adaptations. It’s also the first proudly adult comic book movie, with graphic violence and frontal nudity—at least on the male side. (One of the Watchmen, a the radioactively reconstituted Dr. Manhattan, is a blue-skinned, white-eyed, stark-naked superman who struts around in his anatomically correct, heroically endowed birthday suit like a man-god looking for salvation on a nude beach.) Thematically, meanwhile, this maybe the first comic book movie that finally pays off the dark promise of that first Batman by Tim Burton. It’s not just that its costumed crusaders are anti-heroes. These days, every superhero worth his salt—Spider Man, Iron Man, Hellboy, Hancock—is an anti-hero in a liberal deconstruction of heroism. But what’s remarkable about the Watchmen is that the moral ground they’re standing on is quicksand. And some of them are blithely capable of atrocities, from a brutal sexual assault to the murder of a pregnant Vietnamese peasant. What’s also rare is that this comic book universe is conjoined with a perversely warped version Richard Nixon’s America. The story takes place in an alternate version of American history, with a legion of real-life historical figures (from Pat Buchanan to Lee Iaccoca) showing up in cartoonish cameos that make the Watchmen seem real by comparison. But this is no Forrest Gump. There’s not a lot of room for cozy nostalgia in a movie where superhero vigilantes massacre peace protesters and America wins the Vietnam war.

Watchmen had me at the opening credits. By the time we get to them, we’ve already witnessed a bone-crushing, window-shattering high-rise duel— ending with the grisly murder of a G. Gordon Liddy operative called the Comedian, who’s like the Krusty the Clown of superheroes. The fight is choreographed Tarantino-style, against the soft grain of Nat King Cole crooning Unforgettable. And with it the plot’s premise is uncorked: the words of Rorschach, who serves as an intermittent narrator, “Maybe someone is picking off costumed superheroes.” Now, I don’t know if one can give away opening credits, or give away a soundtrack. (If you haven’t read the graphic novel, and want to be utterly surprised, stop reading right now, but I promise not to spoil key plot points, including the ending, which is one of the few things, apparently, that has been changed from the book.) OK. Back to the opening credits. They unfold against the background of historical re-enactments, and to the tune of Bob Dylan singing The Times Are ‘a Changin’. The entire song. By the time they’re over, we’ve seen lesbians kissing in a World War II victory parade, John F. Kennedy shot by a lone assassin, Castro rubber-necking in Moscow, Andy Warhol kibitzing with Truman Capote, and Nixon rehearsing nuclear Armageddon. The Watchmen, who seem to have been conscripted as  like right-wing vigilantes saving America from Communism, are embedded in the scenes, but again, without slipping into Forrest Gump cutesinness. In fact, the opening credits are so impressive that the rest of the movie has trouble living up to them—which is not to discredit the rest of the movie.

The year is 1986. The Doomsday Clock is ticking down, and the United States and the Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war. The Watchmen are retired, but the global crisis and the Comedian’s murder as them bringing their costumes out of mothballs. So it’s one of those we’re-getting-the-band-back-together stories. But the band has to be explained. That demands a cumbersome narrative, freighted with looping flashbacks, as each of the characters is fleshed out. But at least they are compelling characters: the sadly clairvoyant Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who knows to much and is watching his faith in humanity ebb in to the ether; the vampirish Ozymandius (Matthew Goode), an effete tycoon who is the smartest man in the world; the embittered Rorchach (Walter Kovacs), a psychopath whose toxic moods swim across his masked face as shifting ink blots; Nite Owl II (Dan Drieberg), who is basically Batman with a Clark Kent-like alter ego as a mild-mannered model of mid-life impotence; and the latex-sheathed, dominatrix-next-door, Silk Spectre II—played by Toronto actress and Maxim cover girl Malin Akerman, who made an appearance at the Toronto premiere I attended last night.

For a while, the movie plays as a true ensemble piece. But as Dr. Manhattan, the soft-spoken Crudup conjures an air of delicate, wounded divinity that shimmers with originality. An a pair of romantic leads emerge from the fray as Silk Spectre II ditches Dr. Manhattan and holes up with Nite Owl in his underground version of the Bat Cave. The sexual chemistry fails at first, but all they have to do is slip back into those old rock star costumes, take a joy ride in buddy’s flying Owlship—which ressembles a jet-powered aerial bathysphere—and the juices start to flow again.

Despite the marathon running time, I was never bored. Director Zack Synder (300) keeps the action scenes crisp, clear and brutal. Unlike Dark Knight, Watchmen doesn’t let its set pieces overwhelm the drama. And although there’s no performance to match Heath Ledger’s Joker, I think it’s a better movie than Dark Knight. For such an epic spectacle, it’s not burdened by a lot of clutter. It’s intellectual complexity seems well-earned, not gratuitous. It’s also visually stunning. Cinematographer Larry Fong strikes a nifty balance between noir gloom and supernatural gleam. And production designer Alex McDowell (Fight Club, Minority Report) has created sets that are both exquisite and intriguing. They are also riddled with homages, as is the entire movie. As the smartest man in the world, Ozymandias struck me as a dead ringer for the alien CEO played by David Bowie in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 sci-fi classic, The Man Who Fell To Earth. I can’t say if the influence goes back to the comic book’s creators, but sure enough, a spin through Google reveals that McDowell explicitly based his Ozymandias sets on The Man Who Fell To Earth: an online piece from Wired tells us that McDowell also borrowed the war room scenes from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and New York streetscapes from Taxi Driver—actually importing Scorsese’s frames into the Watchmen visuals.

Meanwhile, the whole thing is propelled by a solid gold soundtrack, with songs that land on their cues like musical superheroes. Dylan, Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel. . . and when Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah looms into the sex scene, I quietly died and went to heaven, gratified that they chose the original, not the trendier versions by Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright. All the while I’d thought I was an out-of-the-loop boomer going to see a movie made for much younger generation of fanboys. But Watchmen made me feel like the target demographic. It found my inner fanboy. Sure I watched it through a veil of skepticism, and was left with a few reservations: some of the violence is so horrendous it forced even these jaded eyes to look away, and some of the weapons-grade Nietzschean philosophy gave me pause. The movie also gave me nasty nightmares that jolted me awake at 6 a.m. But hey, guilty pleasures don’t come cheap.

One Week

JOSHUA JACKSON is goin' down the road in ONE WEEK

JOSHUA JACKSON is goin' down the road in ONE WEEK

Michael McGowan‘s One Week is receiving an unusually broad release for a Canadian film, backed by a hefty promotional campaign. But why not? It’s a deliberate departure from the art-house norm of Canadian cinema. With a shameless appeal to populist sentiment, handsome road movie mines a long, deep vein of Canadiana and goes out of it’s way to be audience-friendly. Joshua Jackson makes a likeable and convicing a turns in a strong performance as a man who has a premature mid-life crisis when he learns he’s dying of cancer. But I wish I could feel the same affection for the script. Jackson is an intelligent, likable presence, and he brings depth and nuance to a rite-of-passage tale that that doesn’t give him a lot to play with aside from a motorcycle, some ravishing scenery and a Cancon soundtrack. Liane Balaban is cast in the thankless role of the nagging fiance who gets left behind. But Jackson’s real co-star is Canada. And the mostly unseen and unknown narrator, played by Campbell Scott with deadpan omniscience , seems to have  more lines than anyone .

One Week is a romance in reverse, the story of a man who discovers himself by falling out of love, and bonding with the land. How Canadian is that? For my interview with Joshua Jackson and some more thoughts on the film, go to my piece in the magazine: When you’re upstaged by a highway

Pontypool

Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) in PONTYPOOL

Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) in PONTYPOOL

I saw Bruce McDonald’s latest film at TIFF last fall, and I liked it. In this stylish, claustrophobic, darkly funny thriller, Stephen McHattie gives a riveting performance as a DJ manning the fort in a radio studio as a plague of zombies converge. These zombies spread their epidemic through language, which is an ingenious conceit, to say the least. Here’s what I wrote about Pontypool after its TIFF premiere:

The movie started about half an hour late. While we waited for the print to arrive, McDonald entertained us by giving a long, baroquely detailed explanation of how he spent $10 million making the movie. He accounted for all the budgetary items, and explained how there was still lots left over, and how he spent the surplus on digitally placing a cowboy hat on the head of lead actor Stephen McHattie in all of his scenes with seamless results. Bruce was so convincing for a moment I swallowed his story, until the movie finally started and I realized this was no $10 million picture, but an elegant little mini-budget horror comedy shot mostly in one room with more talk than action. Pontypool is a droll metaphysical satire involving four characters, economically confined to a radio-station as an epidemic of cannibalism in the outside world slowly closes in on them. Adapted by Tony Burgess from his own novel, it’s avant-garde fare, more Andre Breton than George Romero (this flesh-eating epidemic is linguistically spread, and its victims turn into babbling zombies.) The script’s cerebral convolutions are more over-wound than Tom Stoppard on acid. But some of the local references to ice-fishing and drunken OPP officers are hilarious. And found the whole thing as amusing as it was preposterous. It’s immaculately directed and the performances are a treat. McHattie acts up a storm as the caustic DJ of the radio station, a leathery maverick who struggles to maintain his sanity as the zombies converge. And Hrant Alianak deftly steals every one of his scenes as a deadpan academic who deciphers this verbally induced plague with a priceless air of emotional immunity.




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