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Saturday, 7 March 2009

Watchmen




Early on in Watchman's over two and a half-hour running time we see a teenaged Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) – shown before the particle physics accident that transformed him into disinterested superhuman Dr Manhattan – learning to repair a watch by taking it apart and reconstructing it. The scene foreshadows how he will put himself back together in superhuman form after the accident, it's a metaphor for the complexity of the world, it's the watch that (inadvertently) causes the accident itself – and this is one minor element in a brief flashback involving one of six major characters in the film. The whole film is that dense; there are times where it's almost too much to take. Watchmen is based on the graphic novel by writer Alan Moore (who's fallen out with publisher DC and had his name removed from the film's credits) and artist Dave Gibbons.

Whatever superlative you'd like to use to describe the book, it deserves and then some. It's amazingly dense, extremely complex, emotionally moving, terrifying and uplifting and funny all at once. It's also about superheroes. Watchmen takes place in 1985, on a version of Earth where there was a brief real-life fad for costumed crime-fighters in the 1940s, and Osterman's accident created a superman the US government used to back the Soviet Union into a corner. Crime-fighter turned government assassin The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has just been killed, and with the world teetering on the bring of nuclear war masked vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) believes someone wants the few remaining costumed heroes out of the way. Director Zac Snyder slavishly followed another comic book frame-by-frame to create 300 and he sticks extremely close to the source material again here, making the book's virtues the film's virtues. All the best lines (and some of the clunky ones) are taken verbatim from the book, and scene after scene is a page from the comic brought to life.

But in following the original so closely, the film also highlights a few of the books flaws. As murder mysteries go this one's not hard to solve, and the attempts to streamline the story to fit a reasonable running time cause a few problems of their own, especially in the second half where more and more of the book is lost (until the three and a half-hour DVD verion, no doubt). There are a few scenes where Snyder doesn't seem to trust the book's tone, ramping up emotional moments with cheap shocks or characters shouting "Nooo!", while the jettisoning of the books "street-level" cast of average New Yorkers reduces the impact of the climax (which has been altered from the book) by a sizeable amount. Still, the original is an amazing book; turning it into a merely great film is a win for movie-goers.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #448)

Zac and Miri Make a Porno



Kevin Smith's got it all worked out. Thanks to the success of his early films like Clerks and Chasing Amy, he's got enough rusted-on fans who'll see anything he puts out to ensure that, so long as he brings his films in for cheap, he can keep on making films the way he wants to for a good few years yet. Unfortunately, that also means he has to keep making the kind of films that his rusted-on fans like. And that means that while there's no denying that there are many funny moments in this film, plus the occasional scene where it looks like Smith might be trying to move outside his comfort zone, in the end this is really just a huge slice of more of the same. The title tells you the story: Zac (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are platonic flatmates who find themselves stone cold (literally - it's the middle of winter) broke and decide that making a porn film together just might solve all their financial worries. Cue the foul talk and smutty jokes that have kept Smith's movie's watchable lo these many years, rapidly followed by the sappy romantic gush that is Smith's idea of giving his films "heart". Rogen and Banks do make a great couple and work off each other well, and to be fair to Smith he knows what he's doing when it comes to dick jokes and plenty of them. There's just nothing here that you haven't seen before in a Smith film. If you're okay with that then you'll be okay with this.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #448)

The Combination


Fresh out of prison, John Morkos (George Basha, who also wrote the script) returns to his western Sydney home looking to start over. Unfortunately his younger brother Charlie (Firass Dirani) looks set to make all the same mistakes. He's hanging out with a gang, getting into fights, and when the local drug lord makes him a (job) offer he can't refuse he's all too happy to take the cash. While John's working as a cleaner at a tough-as-nails gym and trying to make it work with his all-Aussie girlfriend Sydney (Clare Bowden), Charlie's getting in deeper and deeper. His life seems to be going down a too-familiar path, and not even his brother can save him from the consequences. An Australian film set in the gritty inner-city usually means getting hammered about the head with the same old cliches, but The Combination (mostly) avoids the typical traps. The characters are well-drawn, the story is well-paced, we see the consequences of a life of crime rather than just the glamour and the racial divide between John and Sydney is simply a (painful) fact to be dealt with rather than a massive injustice (though Sydney's racist parents do like a lecture). David Field is best known for his acting but in his first turn as director he keeps the tone matter-of-fact even when the script gets wobbly. As a result this small film - while hardly earth-shattering - gets the job done in a way that a slew of more ambitious local films could only dream of.

Anthony Morris (this review was published in Forte #448)

W



When it was released in the US a lot of critics took a swing at Oliver Stone's latest film for not sinking the boots into George W. Bush. And it's true that with this biopic Stone takes a much more restrained and even-handed approach to the man responsible for the War on Terror that followers of his previous (and almost always, far more strident) films might have expected. But with Bush dispatched to history's dustbin and his henchmen rapidly becoming a bad dream, this film feels like a much more reasonable take on the man that so recently inspired so much hate and anger. That's not to say this is a glowing portrait by any means, and Josh Brolin as George W Bush gives an amazing performance throughout the three stages of W's life this film focuses on: his hard-drinking days as a Texas layabout and disappointment to his father (James Cromwell), his newly sober, newly religious days in the late 80s where he's slight less of a disappointment to his father, and the days post 9/11 where Bush and his team of henchmen plan out the invasion of Iraq simply because it's what they want to do. The pre-presidential days are informative and mostly straight-forward, with the only real insight being that W really wanted his dad's love. It's the post 9/11 scenes that really bring this film to life, as an all-star cast (Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney; Scott Glenn as Rumsfeld; Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell; Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice) turns this into a mix of a Dr Strangelove black comedy and one of those re-enactments looking inside Hitler's inner circle that SBS are always showing. It's not enough to make this a great film, or even an memorable one, but it does send the occasional chill down the spine.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #448)

The Reader


Films about the Holocaust are nobody's idea of a good time for a whole variety of reasons, but The Reader is a rare example of a Holocaust film that makes you wonder why they bothered mentioning the Holocaust at all. Michael Berg (David Kross) is a schoolboy in 1950s Germany who stumbles into a relationship with a cold-hearted tram conductor (Kate Winslet) - though how cold-hearted can she be when a bath at her place comes complete with her getting her gear off? Anyway, she's emotionally distant, then she suddenly leaves town (making her physically distant as well), then he grows up to be a law student (and Ralph Feinnes) who goes on a class trip to a war crimes trial only to discover his ex is a SS guard defendant accused of killing hundreds. The film's steadfast refusal to treat her as anything more monstrous than your typically flawed human being is to be applauded, but it does also end up rendering large chunks of the film pointless. If this is a film about a man who's ability to emotionally connect with others is stunted by a first love who is borderline emotionally abusive - and in parts it sure seems like it - then having her turn out to be an SS guard seems heavy-handed in the extreme. If, on the other hand, it's about the impossibility of assigning the label "evil" to an individual - Ms SS guard being both obviously guilty yet understandably human - then what's with all the sex? Or the clumsy plot twist that means he's the only person who knows she's not completely guilty (just mass murder-adjacent)? Winslet gives a solid performance and the film itself is never dull, but for a story so obviously designed to tackle big issues seriously this feels a little too exploitative whichever way you read it.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #447)

Changeling


Dateline Los Angeles, the 1920s. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a hard-working, tram-taking single mother who comes home one afternoon to find her pre-teen son gone without a trace. The LAPD promise to leave no stone unturned in their search for her boy, and after six months of heartbreak they deliver the miracle Christine prayed for. Only maybe it isn't a miracle at all, as she rapidly becomes convinced the boy returned to her is a stranger. But the 1920s is no time for a single mother to speak out against the law and soon she's being dragged off to the nuthouse, while in a farm outside LA another possible - and far more grisly explanation - for her son's disappearance is being uncovered. Director Clint Eastwood's usual sure-footed approach to crime drama stumbles a little as this film (based on a true story) dances between the lofty but plodding tale of one woman against the system and an energetic but tangential police investigation into a farmer turned serial child-killer. Much of the problem lies with the central character: Christine is a dull but worthy saint who is frustratingly passive in this male-dominated tale, and Jolie never gets under her skin. Eastwood's skill in combining human characters with pulp storytelling has served him well in the past, but Changeling is mostly a strident, flat-footed effort seemingly aimed more at grabbing awards than entertaining viewers.

Anthony Morris (this review was published in Forte #447)

He's Just Not That Into You


Turning popular relationship self-help book He's Just Not That Into You into a romantic comedy was never going to be easy, and not just because self-help books are usually somewhat short on those little things movies are built around like story and characters. Pretty much the entire point of the book is that instead of chasing after some guy or waiting for him to call, move onto the next guy and see if he treats you better. But the entire point of pretty much every romantic comedy out of Hollywood is that roughly two hours of misunderstandings, crossed wires, breaking up then making up is what love is all about. So it's to this film's credit that it manages to get as much of the original's message across as it does - even though there is a scene towards the end where one character tearfully rejects every single scrap of clear-headed relationship advice she's been given, and we're expected to cheer her decision to resume stalking guys and being treated by crap... because it's somehow a better path to love? The story here is pretty simple, as we follow a half dozen or so seemingly insanely wealthy Baltimore women (Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Connelly, Drew Barrymore, Scarlett Johansson and Ginnifer Goodwin) as they search for love either inside their relationships or in a new one. They string guys along, guys string them along, they get in the way of what they really want, they get their wires crossed, and everything ends relatively happily. As a bonus, we also find out that having no relationship is better than having a crap one and gay guys know nothing about heterosexual relationships, both of which earn this film bonus points for originality. Add in decent performances across the board, especially from the women (Connelly does an especially good job as a woman who's husband is sorta kinda cheating on her in a variety of ways) and a passable sense of humour to balance out the serious stuff, and the result is something that pretty much anyone who's been in a relationship should have no trouble getting into.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #447)

The Spirit



To get the obvious out of the way first: The Spirit is nuts. It's not actually a bad movie - the story basically makes sense, the characters are consistent (if very cartoony), and the whole thing is put together with a well-judged sense of style and design - but it is a pretty nutty movie nonetheless. It doesn't really help that this tale of a trench-coated crime-fighter up against a supervillian looking to make himself immortal is trying to tap into a retro-pulp vibe of square-jawed heroes and over-the-top villainy that, whether it's the 90s version of The Shadow or the more recent Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, almost never works on the big screen. Throw in plenty of scenes that are just plain odd (Samuel L. Jackson in a nazi uniform? Eva Mendes photocopying her backside?) and you're left with a film that "quirky" doesn't really begin to cover. Most of this is down to the fact that it was written and directed by Frank Miller, the comic writer / artist behind Sin City and 300. Miller, as anyone who's read any of his comics since about 1997 knows, is a pretty out-there guy with some very firm ideas about what's funny - ideas that don't really match up with what the rest of us think is worth laughing at. Judging by The Spirit, there wasn't anyone around to tap him on the shoulder and point out that, say, having a foot with a tiny head attached hopping around a desk while Samuel L. Jackson says "that is really weird" over and over isn't something a lot of people would feel the need to watch. But despite all that, there's still a certain fascination about this film. Partly it's because it's clearly one man's unique vision, which is always more fun than yet another film-by-committee. Partly it's because it's basically a live-action cartoon that doesn't take itself too seriously. And partly it's because Miller, whatever his flaws, still knows how to keep a story moving forward. Insane this might be, but at least it's never dull.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #447)