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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Watchmen review

By Bob Garver

                One of the best things about “Watchmen” is its setting.  This is no surprise.  The film is based on a graphic novel, and lots of graphic novels and comic books are defined by their setting.  Can you picture Batman fighting crime anywhere other than Gotham City?  Or Spider-Man not (assumedly) swinging from New York’s skyscrapers?  One of my favorites is “Sin City” and that one’s actually named after its setting.  “Watchmen” is also defined by its setting, but the twist is that the setting in question isn’t a place, it’s a time.
Actually, it’s more of a history than a time.  The year is 1985.  Richard Nixon has just begun his fifth term as President.  He’s so popular because he enlisted superheroes to win the Vietnam War. Yes, we won Vietnam.  Right-wing domination has turned liberals violent, and there are many riots.   The United States and Russia are this close to nuclear war.  And there are plenty of other goodies. 

Apparently superheroes came about in the 40s and have shaped the world ever since.  They have since been outlawed, but a few are still around to work for the government.  Masked weirdo Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) is the only one still doing illegal vigilante work.    One of the government-sanctioned superheroes called The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is assassinated.  The Comedian couldn’t have been defeated easily, and Rorschach thinks there’s a superhero killer (both possible definitions of “superhero killer”) on the loose.

Rorschach reconnects with the other members of The Watchmen, his former superhero squad.  Gadget-whiz Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) is shlumping around in retired life.  Lightning-quick genius Ozymandais/Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) owns a huge corporation and is making millions selling superhero-related merchandise.  Genetically-altered superhuman Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) is helping Ozymandais build weapons for the government.  Silk Spectre/Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) lives with boyfriend Dr. Manhattan in his research facility.  She craves a relationship with someone who isn’t emotionally detached from all humanity. 

The death of The Comedian leads to all the Watchman examining the decisions they’ve made since their glory days.  Only violent psychopath Rorschach has no regrets, which is ironic because everyone thinks that he should.  He eventually winds up in prison.  This would be a punishment for some, it’s more like a trip to an all-you-can-eat justice buffet for him.  He nonchalantly escapes only because he wants to continue his investigation. 

Rorschach comes to uncover a conspiracy with motives far different than what he imagined.  Rorschach is used to seeing the world in black and white (possibly because his mask is black and white and covers his entire head) but the diabolical plot that makes for the film’s climax is enough to give anyone pause.  Or at least it should. 

Unfortunately, even at 162 minutes, a lot of what happens in “Watchmen” is too abbreviated.  Motives and relationships aren’t given the time to be explained as thoroughly as they should be.  Entire sections of the story from the graphic novel are missing from the film (fans of the source material will notice the omission of the pirate comic and the storyline involving Rorschach’s psychologist, among others).  Certain characters are given too much screen time (Dr. Manhattan gets several lengthy interludes even though the character is a special effects creation and his scenes must have been very expensive to film) while others (like the villain) get far too little.  The pacing is a real throw-off, especially as the film rushes to an unsatisfactory conclusion. 

“Watchmen” has had one of the most problematic releases in recent memory.  Graphic novel creator Alan Moore has publicly declared that he wants nothing to do with the film.  There was a huge battle over the rights that nearly cancelled the film’s release.  Fans of the graphic novel have been crying foul that it is untouchable and unfilmable.  To his credit, director Zack Snyder makes his best effort to date.  He succeeds in translating the Watchmen’s world, but falls short of telling their story.
9:28 am edt          Comments

Madea Goes to Jail review
“Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail” 

By Bob Garver

            Tyler Perry is a difficult talent to judge.  On one hand, he’s very hard-working and his story is inspirational.  He spent years struggling in legitimate theater until the late 90s, when he finally struck gold with shows starring his Madea character.  Several successful plays later, he got a movie deal and started a film franchise with 2005’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman”.  Almost every year since, he has wrote, directed, produced, and starred in a new Madea movie.  Those are all reasons to like him.  The reason to dislike him is that he makes movies like “Madea Goes to Jail”.

            Much like last December’s “Marley & Me”, “Madea Goes to Jail” tries to balance an annoying storyline with an uninteresting one.  Perry clearly feels the uninteresting storyline is a priority, but it isn’t enough to get audiences to the theaters.  So he creates the annoying storyline, which somehow has a ton of commercial appeal.  The film weaves between the two storylines, and the grass is seemingly always greener on the other side.

            The uninteresting storyline is the story of Joshua (Derek Luke) and Candace (Keshia Knight Pulliam).  Joshua is a hotshot prosecutor engaged to spoiled hottershot prosecutor Linda (Ion Overman).  One fateful day, old friend Candace shows up in court on a prostitution charge.  Joshua is forced to consider how the choices he’s made have affected Candace.  He’s also forced to look at his own life in the same way.

            The dirty little secret of “Madea Goes to Jail” is that the movie is mostly about Joshua and Candace.  There is absolutely no indication of this in ads.  I even had to wait until the end credits to learn that Derek Luke was even in the movie (shame, I like him, I would have rooted for him).  Luke and Pulliam play the parts well, but there’s very little to the storyline that hasn’t been done before.  Tyler Perry must have known that if he wanted to tell the story of Joshua and Candace he would need to add more flavor.   He would need to add more personality.  He would need to add more humor.   He added Madea.

            Mabel “Madea” Simmons is Perry’s most popular character, both on stage and screen.  The type of humor surrounding Madea can be summed up in three facts.  1)  She mispronounces words.  2) She is far too obnoxious, aggressive, and feisty for her age, which is about 70.  3) She is played by Perry in unconvincing drag.  She is apparently very funny, but I just find her annoying.  You probably know already if you find her funny or annoying.   

In the course of “Madea Goes to Jail”, Madea gets involved in a high-speed police chase, beats up three arresting officers, chases people out of her house by opening fire with a machine gun, overturns a convertible with a forklift, gets arrested again, and wins a laundry room brawl with a tough inmate.  She’s old, so this is considered “quirky”.

            Much too late in the story, Madea and Candace end up in the same prison.  The portions of “Madea Goes to Jail” that actually involve Madea and Jail are actually the film’s few bright moments.  Madea gets a sweet, psychotic cellmate who takes an instant liking to her.  Madea and the prison bully start out as enemies, but eventually develop a mutual respect.  A prison volunteer (recent Academy Award nominee Viola Davis) leads a church/therapy session with surprising tenderness and profundity.  But then the story goes right back to the dullness of the Joshua storyline.

             Tyler Perry thinks that “Madea Goes to Jail” is a fair balance between funny and serious.  It’s really more of a balance between annoying (Madea) and uninteresting (Joshua and Candace).  The compromise is less than satisfying, and it’s enough to make one forget that Tyler Perry had to overcome such adversity.  Or, like me, not care.
9:24 am edt          Comments

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