Friday, March 13, 2009

Watch...Men!

It begins with Bob Dylan and it ends with My Chemical Romance, and somewhere in the middle lies the universe of WATCHMEN, a hyper-violent and ultra-stylized adaptation of the seminal graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. For those not in the know about the importance of WATCHMEN in the pantheon of comic books (it's, like, a big deal) the ads for the movie might lead one to think this is just another superhero movie. Actually, without "Watchmen" the graphic novel, there might not actually be any of the superhero movies we're enjoying today.

Darker than THE DARK KNIGHT, cooler than IRON MAN, and way more fantastic than any of the FANTASTIC FOUR movies, the movie takes place in 1985, around the time the graphic novel was published. The world of WATCHMEN is an alternate-reality version of the United States during the tail end of the Cold War, except Richard Nixon is still President (he is serving a fourth term after ending the Vietnam War) and the U.S. and not the Soviet Union is on the verge of invading Afghanistan. Like that would ever happen.

Amidst all of this Superman Bizarro World-esque political intrigue is the main storyline that has the comic geeks salivating - the plight of the Watchmen, the last remaining members of an elite group of superheroes. Once heralded as society's heroes (they, not Nixon, actually ended the conflict in Vietnam) the Watchmen have now disbanded as the chaos and cynicism of 1985 has caused many a citizen to wonder "Who is watching the Watchmen?"

One of these fallen heroes is Edward Blake aka The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan from "Grey's Anatomy," a show I've never seen) and he is to superheroes what Billy Bob Thornton was to Santa Clauses. Overweight, jaded, and just an all-around s.o.b., The Comedian meets a grisly demise when he is pummeled within an inch of his life and thrown out the window of a skyscraper in a city very much like New York City. Who killed him and are the other Watchmen next? That's what the intrepid but disturbed Walter Kovacs aka Rorschach (Jackie Earl Hailey from "Little Children" in the movie's best performance, bar none) is determined to find out. He's no superhero (and actually, neither is anyone else, really) but he does considers himself a fellow "mask," as he is almost always cloaked beneath a cloth mask that continually forms creepy Rorshach Test-like shapes. As Scott Marks pointed out out in his review on emulsioncompulsion.com, if these characters aren't superheroes, then what's up with that otherworldly mask of his? Good point.

Rorshach sets out to warn the other Watchmen who include Dan Dreiberg aka Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson, also from "Little Children" - where was Kate Winslet during casting?) Laurie Jupiter aka Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman from "The Heartbreak Kid," like Nite Owl II, she comes from a superhero family) Adrien Veidt aka Ozymandias (Matthew Goode from "Match Point") and Jon Osterman aka Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, the voice from all those "priceless" MasterCard ads.) Could one of the Watchmen actually be the culprit? Well, I've never been a spoiler kind of reviewer, but even if you have read the graphic novel, the mystery element was never the story's strongest suit.

What works best in the movie is it's ability to emulate the look and feel of the graphic novel without feeling restrained in any way. Director Zack Snyder, who previously adapted Frank Miller's graphic novel "300" to the big screen in a similarly stylized fashion, amps up the violence (perhaps he could have turned the dial to 9 instead of 11) as well as the hypnotic imagery, creating a world that is reminiscent of the Off World colonies of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" but is no less eye-popping.

Besides Rorschach, the other memorable character in the film is Crudup's Dr. Manhattan. Once a handsome, idealistic, scientist, now a glowing-blue, cerebral, superhuman (with matching genitalia on full display, ladies) with the ability to destroy and reassemble matter, Doc Blue is a bit like the HAL-9000 in human form - he views the world in logical, not emotional, terms. The fact that both he and Nite Owl II are both involved with Silk Spectre II makes for a very odd love triangle, but when one boyfriend teleports himself to Mars, what's a girl to do on a Saturday night?

A lot has been made about the movie's 2 hour and forty minute running time - to wit, the a-hole in the movie theater I saw it in who yelled "Boring!" during one of the best scenes of the film (to those who have seen the movie, it's the flashback of Rorschach searching for the missing girl.) To paraphrase Roger Ebert," No good movie can be long enough, no bad movie can be short enough." There's so much of WATCHMEN that is good, that the stuff that is just okay (some of the dialogue and the oft-repeated chop-socky fight scenes) never quite brings the proceedings to a screeching halt.

WATCHMEN traverses similar territory to last year's bar-raising superhero movie THE DARK KNIGHT in that the superheroes are conflicted (some might even say cuckoo) individuals who are oddly compelled to don outlandish costumes (with the exception of Rorschach, the costumes in WATCHMEN are pretty ridiculous, but one can assume Alan Moore was making a point) and ultimately do the right thing even if the world's leaders are opting for more convenient options, such as dropping the nuclear bomb. Sadly, WATCHMEN doesn't have a villain as enthralling as The Joker to balance out the nutjobs who we are actually rooting for, but one can argue that the true enemies of the Watchmen are, in fact, themselves.

I've been asked whether or not people should read the graphic novel before seeing the movie. I would say, emphatically, YES. It is a such a ground-breaking and defining work that it really should be enjoyed first, as there is so much in it that a movie just could not ever do successfully. I do, however, think WATCHMEN the movie stands on it's own as a dark, dazzling, and exciting action movie that is, like it's end credit song suggests, a jolt of punk rock in an era of mainstream moviemaking that is just so much Muzak.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Jack Bauer Is The New John McClane

It's official - "24" is back. And not only is it back, it's better than ever. Sure, Dennis Haysbert will go down as the Best...President...Ever in the "24" universe (though Cherry Jones is doing a damn fine job) and Gregory Itzin will be hard to beat as the show's all-time best villain (hard to top the Prez being the heavy - a sure sign of it's pre-Obama-ness) but this season has been so action-packed and suspenseful, that it's almost as if the movie "Die Hard" has been cut up into hour-long episodes and stretched over an entire season. It's that good. Lord knows the same could not be said for last season. Boy, did that blow.

Kiefer Sutherland's reluctant, and, yes, weary, hero (does he ever get any sleep?) is very much cut from the John McClane cloth, just without the sense of humor and Jersey smart-aleck 'tude. Would it kill Jack to indulge in even the smallest amount of gallow's humor once in a while? I guess that's what tech-head Chloe O' Brien (Mr. Show's Mary Lynn Rajskub) is for.

This season, African terrorists (who knew?) have not only invaded American soil but they have found their way into the White House, forcing the current President, Allison Taylor (Jones) to nearly surrender. But this being a "24" episode, this isn't a cliffhanger that will be drawn out over Sweep's Week - it's just one of a hundred plot twists to unfold during a very unnerving Season 7. And there's signs aplenty that the President's daughter Olivia, who has just been appointed as a member of her mother's cabinet, might very well be in league with the mole who allowed the terrorists into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the first place. The only plot twist left that I can imagine is that Jack Bauer is actually a terrorist. Now that would really be something!

For my money, "Die Hard" is the best action movie ever made. Bruce Willis' everyman hero John McClane came along just as Schwarzenegger and Stallone's silly superheros were starting to show their bones. Combined with John McTiernan's taut direction, Jan de Bont's superb cinematography, the late Michael Kamen's immortal, sleighbell-tinged, score, and Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) the greatest movie villain since Darth Vader, "Die Hard" came out of left field and just owned the modern action movie genre. And it's a damn good Christmas movie to boot.

Though Jack Bauer's near-indestructibility has already passed the point of ridiculousness, "24" still has a lot of the same elements that makes "Die Hard" such an enduring classic. Bauer, like McClane, is exactly the guy you want in a crisis situation: tough, no-nonsense, and not afraid to cross the lines of political incorrectness to get the job done, the job usually being saving lots of U.S. citizens from certain doom. And talk about villains - this season alone has already had three (one of them being Tony "The Candyman" Todd!)

The females characters on the show...ok, maybe they're not the most three-dimensional characters ever written, though Rajskub's Chloe is a pretty genius creation. Her awkard social graces and blunt demeanor never fail to get a laugh. Jack's sidekick this season is FBI Agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) and so far, she's been a good match for him, though there are signs that she may very well be turning into a female version of Jack, which is really kinda neat-o.

It's just so cool to have a TV show that piles on so many action scenes but never really goes into "MacGuyver" territory (though the bit with Kim Bauer and that cougar in Season 2 - oy vey - came closest.) The "real-time" ticking-clock gimmick - well, it isn't really a gimmick. It's the heartbeat of the show - and it doesn't so much tick as it pounds. Creators Robert Cochran and Joe Surnow have created a show that has not only not overstayed it's welcome but has miraculously been resurrected into the top-notch entertainment it has been for at least five of it's seasons now. That's not too bad of a track record.

So if you're one of the unconverted and you like shows that keep you on the edge of your seat (literally) then get on the "24" bus, stat. 'Cuz unlike Jack Bauer, not all TV shows are indestructible and this season - possibly the best one yet - could very well be it's ride off into the sunset.

Tick...tock...tick...tock...

Monday, March 2, 2009

Nothing Good Ever Comes From Craigslist

When will I ever learn? This morning I decided to start the week off in a productive manner by checking all my online resources (all three of them) for new job opportunities. After going the legit route (my only response being an email informing me that my resume was formatted wrong - d'oh!) I decided to stop by that ever-reliable community bulletin board/wacko magnet and other "C" word, Craigslist.

Having had some experience with the site before, I like to call it "Crankslist," as most of the postings on there just cannot be trusted at all. But once again, I found myself returning to the less jaded version of myself that stepped off the Hollywood-bound Greyhound bus way back in '95 (ok, I arrived in a VW Rabbit, but I was far more idealistic in those days) and I ventured into the L.A. job listings thinking that maybe, just maybe, my dream job would be sitting there just waiting for me to apply.

Lo and behold, I found the listing - ok, maybe not THE listing, but A listing that had "me" written all over it. Even though it was sandwiched between postings seeking actors for a film in which they were expected to appear nude yet not be paid (hey, copy, credit, and free pizza goes a long way) and those who desire to "contribute to a blog about a traditional wooden Japanese ball-and-cup toy that is starting to become popular in the United States, especially among skateboarders and rollerbladers," (you can't make this stuff up) my interest was still piqued.

Lofty expectations aside, I figured, what the heck, you have to swing to hit the ball, so I answered this ad which was seeking writers for an "up and coming" entertainment magazine. Seeing as how I currently make zero dollars and zero cents writing this blog, a gig writing for a magazine could only add to my pot.

I spent the next half hour or so prepping my best writing samples, some of which needed some tweaking and reformatting (writing is, in fact, rewriting.) I then concentrated on writing a catchy cover letter/email that said more than just boiler-plate greeting stuff. After pressing the "send" button, I noticed the number 1 instantly appear over my Inbox icon. For a about a half-second I indulged myself in a fantasy in which the magazine editors were collectively staring at their email inbox, waiting for my submission to appear, then realized that made no sense whatsoever. So I clicked my inbox icon and what did I see? A response not from Up and Coming Magazine but from my dear friend, and perhaps yours as well, Failure Notice. My eager email had bounced back quicker than a check from Bernie Madoff. I immediately rechecked the address in the sent from box. It was correct, just apparently nonexistent.

Let's check the scoreboards, shall we? Craigslist Scammers: 5,748,269,112. Hopeful Online Job Applicants: 0.

The frustrating part was not the time wasted, but the knowledge that this was an all-too familiar scenario for me. As I declared in the title of this blog, nothing really good has ever come from Crankslist, er, Craigslist. I threw in the modifier "really" because some good things have actually come from it, which I will list in full:

My current rommmate Mark
My appearance on the game show "Starface" (total winnings - $0)
My first movie review gig (total earnings - zippo)
My appearance on the "reality" makeover show "TV Candy" (total prize winnings - a jacket, shirt, and pants designed by Ben Sherman.)

In the words of Porky Pig," That's all, folks." All that has resulted from my earnest submissions and glass-half-full optimism is a nice living situation, some elbow-rubbing with Danny Bonaduce and Melissa Rivers, and a nice outfit that is in dire need of updating (note: on said makeover show, I had to provide my own belt and shoes, so it wasn't a complete rake-fest.)

In the Silver Lining Department, however, my appearance on "Starface" ultimately led to my most recent single-episode stint on Fox's "Trivial Pursuit: America Plays," in which I bombed on the written test but ended up making a little over $500 for asking (not answering, mind you) a question I made up on the spot. Still, it's a little sad when you have to Kevin Bacon your good fortunes (i.e., that blind date in which you were left for dead on the side of the highway which led to the old codger picking you up which led to him willing you some money for being nice enough to listen to him jabber on unlike his ungrateful grandkids.)

Not that Craigslist is a complete waste of cyberspace. I successfully sold a pair of Jimmy Buffett tickets to a college girl who was anything but a crank (I could see in her soon-to-be glassy eyes though that our distrust was mutual.) And if you need a good laugh, check out the "Erotic" listings on the site wherein every possible sexual predilection is advertised, the laugh coming when you see the photo of the tranny who is doing the offering. Just be thankful that's the only thing in the erotic section that's coming.

Still, I feel the same way about Crankslist that I do about playing the California Lottery - somewhat proud that I'm in the game at all but a little more than embarrassed knowing full well I'm absolutely wasting my time and singles. At least Craigslist doesn't charge every time I submit myself for stuff. If that were the case, I'd have to sell my Ben Sherman duds and get on another game show, stat.