Monday, March 9, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Watchmen (2009): An expansive mosaic of a film, Zack Snyder's adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel is both visually stunning and intellectually provoking. Far from being a family-friendly or lighthearted film--this isn't The Incredibles, people--Watchmen is a feast for the imagination. Set in an alternative 1985 where Nixon is in his third term, America won the Vietnam War, and masked superheroes are a normative in history, the Cold War has come to a tipping point. The USSR and the United States are nearing the finish line of the arms race, and the only possible end is nuclear holocaust.

In the midst of this dour environment, one of the superheroes is murdered. Thrown out of his high-rise apartment, the death of The Comedian instigates a murder mystery like no other. Someone must have known about his secret identity, which is an alarming revelation for the rest of his formerly-masked friends. These friends aren't your typical saves-the-day kind of superheroes. These people are flawed, broken, insecure, even demented. They beg the question, "what kind of person seriously decides to wear a mask and fight crime?" There's Rorschach, the paranoid and overly-violent vigilante who wears a amorphous mask of black and white. Nite Owl uses his many gadgets to procure justice, but his strength and security lie only behind his mask. Ozymandias is "the smartest man alive" and uses his Roman-god persona to create a financial empire. Silk Spectre is beautiful yet fragile, struggling to come to terms with being a superhero as she follows in her mother's footsteps (the first Silk Spectre). Finally, Dr. Manhattan is the only one with true superpowers; a physics experiment gone wrong left the scientist as a demi-god, capable of just about anything while slowly losing his sense of humanity. Oh, and he glows blue and walks around naked. He's a little weird like that.

Manhattan is perhaps the most interesting character of all, the true "superman" figure that everyone expects to save the world. Many times he is directly compared to God in the film. And godlike he is: he is beyond time, beyond space, transcending matter and all known physics, capable of teleporting, seeing the future, even creating life. Yet he seems incredibly inhuman for someone who once was a regular man. Billy Crudup does a stellar job providing the body and voicework for Manhattan, creating a character who seems both relatable and distant.

While the graphic novel explored immense character development, satire, and social commentary, the strength of the film version of Watchmen lies in its aesthetics and philosophy. Synder manages to create a visually expansive film as it follows the graphic novel's artwork for a storyboard. Watching this in IMAX, I was floored by some of the cinematography during the action sequences. I recognized exact frames from the novel in the film, and the overarching story is a solid adaptation. In fact, I found the film's ending to be more believable and personally moving than the novel's. I won't spoil it for you, but let's just say that the novel's ending is a bit fishy compared to the film's. My biggest complaint? The soundtrack. The film is filled with folkly music like Simon and Garfunkel, Billie Holiday, and Bob Dylan. While I like these musicians, the songs just felt out of place.

Despite a nearly 3 hour running time, the film manages to stay interesting, though a bit jam-packed with story. There are numerous narrator-driven flashbacks to develop each character, offering history and background which reveal that these aren't just superheroes. These are people, broken people who struggle with the moral decisions they are making and the insecurities of failure and pain. How can they save a world filled with millions of broken people like themselves? How can they save what doesn't seem worth saving?

Overall, it's a good film; not great but good. If you're looking for a bloody action film like 300 or Wanted, this isn't your graphic novel adaptation. Like I said, this isn't a family-friendly film or mindless action flick. Yes, there is action and blood--plenty of it--but that's not the point. This film is about the gray areas in social morality presented as ambitious mosaic of a story. This is about the darker side of humanity, the side that seems to need to wear a mask, the side that needs to be saved.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008): Perhaps one of the saddest and most celebratory films I've ever seen. Yes, that sounds like a blatant contradiction, yet this paradox of a documentary will capture your emotions like nearly nothing I've ever experienced. Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne set out to make a film celebrating the life of his best friend, Andrew Bagby, who was tragically murdered in a park in Pennsylvania. As Kuenne travels the world interviewing those who loved Andrew, the story that unfolds following Andrew's death is so remarkable that I would have deemed it fiction had it not been captured on film. In fact, I'll avoid giving a plot synopsis and simply encourage you to watch the film for yourself; you'll appreciate the richness of emotions the film elicits without the possibility of spoiled surprises.

This is not an easy film to watch. The story that follows Andrew Bagby's death is both tragic and outrageous. Yet the life of Andrew as told by his friends and family is incredibly moving. At a glance, Andrew's life was not overly remarkable. He was an only child that grew up to be a doctor, his life snuffed out at the early age of 28. A bit insecure about his looks and love life, yet his quick wit and charming smile drew so many people to love him as a friend. The film shows how a much impact an ordinary life can truly make in our world, how unique and miraculous each life truly is.

As far as filmmaking goes, this is a fairly straightforward documentary. Some of the editing is a bit too quick and overt; some of the scenes are a bit too preachy and over-the-top. It's the love and the heart behind the film that makes it so powerful. I would highly recommend the film, but be prepared--it's an emotional punch in your gut.

W. (2008): Oliver Stone's latest film is a mix of biopic and satire that manages to both humiliate and humanize the 43rd President. Revealing the life of George W. Bush in a series of flashbacks, dream sequences, and sporadic scenes of his presidential reign, the film seems to suffer a bit from an identity crisis. The film is neither staunchly pro- or anti-Bush; instead, it feels more like a character study of a man suffering from living in his father's shadow.

Beginning in a baseball stadium, Bush (Josh Brolin) smiles at the invisible applauding crowd cheering for him, quickly turning to his gray-haired presidency days, then cutting back to his college years. The film is filled with these timeline jumps, which gets old at times. (If you have only two hours to look at the inner workings of a president, why choose scene of him choking on junk food while watching sports?) Some of the best scenes are quickly followed by random shots of Bush running or eating. There's a lot of Bush eating, actually. Guess Oliver Stone and company think he's a hungry guy.

The strong point in the film is Josh Brolin's performance as Bush. There are moments where you forget that he's not actually the former president. Brolin gives so much life to this Bush that we feel sympathy for the guy. He has a lot of pressure on him, especially from his father. He has some strong opinions and idealistic thinking that gets him into trouble quite often, especially when his opinions are manipulated by some of his advisors (vice-prez Dick Cheney especially). The film makes him seem more human, more like a man torn between what he believes to be right and what outside expectations are set on him. Speaking of Cheney, Richard Dreyfuss and Elizabeth Banks also give great performances as the VP and Laura Bush, respectively.

Overall, I felt the film's commentary on Bush's presidency and life was a bit too mixed up to be a truly phenomenal film. At times it felt like the biopic that could have been profound; other times, it felt like it was just reaching to be a comedy. It's still a good film and worth a rental, but I expect that there will be better films about the life of George W. Bush in the years to come.

Redbelt (2008): Writer/director David Mamet manages to take a relatively ordinary story and turn it into a surprisingly powerful little film. Chiwetel Ejiofor is Mike Terry, a principled, idealistic, and kind-hearted martial arts instructor who saves a movie star (Tim Allen, in a surprising role) in a bar fight. Already in financial trouble due to a broken window in his dojo, Mike and his wife (Alice Braga) find themselves taken into the confidence of some powerful and wealthy people in the film and mixed-martial arts industries. Through a series of twists and turns involving an emotional basket case attorney (Emily Mortimor) and numerous shady fight promoters, Mike is forced to enter the competitive field of martial arts just to make financial ends meet.

The power of this film likes in Ejiofor's performance and the well-scripted dialogue. While some parts come off as a stage play--particularly all the scenes with the corrupt fight promoters--Ejiofor's portrayal as the idealistic Mike is quite moving. There aren't many films where a hero sticks to his principles without looking like a naive caricature (think George W. Bush above) or a stubbornly black-and-white thinker (think Jack Bauer). Mike's principles of the martial arts fighter are almost spiritual in their holistic paradigm, and he's willing to fight to keep them pure. After being forced into entering the ring, Mike's principles seem to waver. The guilt of using his ideology for monetary profit wears heavily on his face. In a somewhat unrealistic conclusion that nonetheless is powerful, Mike has to fight for his principles outside the ring quite literally.

Redbelt is an interesting character study, a realistic look into the world of martial arts, and a fairly well-scripted film. The pacing does lag at times, and if you're expecting an action-packed kung-fu film, this isn't it. Yet Redbelt is a strong film about a man of character and principles taking a solid stand for what he knows is right.

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